On April 6, 2016, Iraqi refugee and UC Berkeley student Khairuldeen Makhzoomi boarded a plane to Oakland, California. Before the plane departed, he was removed, interrogated and searched by the FBI, and, when all was said and done, forced to secure a flight on a different airline. The reason: another passenger had overheard Makhzoomi speaking Arabi.
According to The Daily Californian, “Makhzoomi, a loyal Southwest premier rewards member...called his uncle in Baghdad” before the flight took off to tell him about a dinner he had attended at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council. He told his uncle “goodbye...with the phrase ‘inshallah,’ which translates to ‘if God is willing.’”
Upon hanging up, Makhzoomi noticed that a female passenger was watching him with suspicion. When he looked back, “she got up and left her seat.”
“ ‘She kept staring at me, and I didn’t know what was wrong,’ he said. ‘Then I realized what was happening, and I just was thinking ‘I hope she’s not reporting me.’
Minutes later, an airport employee arrived to remove Makhzoomi from the airplane. Makhzoomi was escorted onto the passenger boarding bridge where he was met by three security officers.
He learned that the passenger thought she had heard the word ‘Shahid’ meaning martyr, which is associated with jihad and has been associated with terrorists.
The conversation between Makhzoomi and the employee became complicated and political. The employee informed Makhzoomi that he was not allowed to return to the plane.
Then Makhzoomi heard one of the security officers radio for the FBI.
‘At that moment I couldn’t feel anything,’ he said. ‘I was so afraid. I was so scared.’”
Makhzoomi, who is 26 years old, left Iraq in 2002 after his father, “an Iraqi diplomat, was killed under Saddam Hussein’s regime.” Before United States granted asylum to his family, Makhzoomi lived in Jordan with his mother and younger brother. Since settling in the States he has labored for himself and for others — building “a school in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan,” helping his mother to care for his brother, who was diagnosed with Down Syndrome, and working at the Cheesecake Factory.
But as Makhzoomi submitted to investigation by the FBI, he was reduced to suspect and spectacle. From The Daily Californian:
“Dozens of onlookers watched as he waited for the FBI to arrive.
In the meantime, security officers searched his bag again and continued to ask him if he had any other luggage he was keeping secret. Makhzoomi alleged that one police officer searched his genital area and asked him if he was hiding a knife anywhere.
‘That is when I couldn’t handle it, and my eyes began to water,’ he said. ‘The way they searched me and the dogs, the officers, people were watching me, and the humiliation made me so afraid because it brought all of these memories back to me. I escaped Iraq because of the war, because of Saddam and what he did to my father. When I got home, I just slept for a few days.’”
Makhzoomi made his way home on a Delta flight — Southwest refused him the possibility of rebooking via their service and instead issued him a refund.
The airline has since provided a statement addressing—vaguely—their treatment of Makhzoomi: “We wouldn’t remove passengers from flights without a collaborative decision rooted in established procedures...We regret any less than positive experience onboard our aircraft. Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind.”
Image via Getty.