IT WAS THE TENTH MISSED CALL IN AN HOUR.
I stared at my buzzing phone, feeling guilty for not picking up. I knew what they were going to say. It had been less than a day since we had returned from our trip to Vancouver, B.C and I needed some shut eye, but the phone calls would not stop.
“Why did you do have to post on Facebook?” my mother had inquired sharply upon my arrival. “You know how powerful they are? They’ll target you even more for exposing them.”
The flurries of calls were doused in worry and love. They didn’t want to see me hurt. But there was the other part too; the part that reeked of anger, that I would willingly stand up and take action against the Department of Homeland Security when many of my family members were applying for permanent residency here in America.
“You have put them all in danger because of your actions,” my Great Uncle messaged me on Whatsapp.
You were not there, I thought to myself.
In fact, no one was there when we were herded like cattle from security check to security check. When my bags were opened, and reopened, my bras and underwear laid out, when the glaring eyes of passerbys would scan over my headscarf and then at me. No one was there when I was refused boarding at the gate, and they detained me in the back for over fourteen minutes, leaving us to miss their only flight for the day. When we were held overnight at the border, our items, phones and car confiscated, detained like prisoners on a cold night, with a five month baby in our arms. When I felt the gut-wrenching fear that others would only speak of, when my husband was detained at 3 a.m, and I wasn’t sure if he would come back alive. When I thought about the real possibility that there were no witnesses, and we could have easily been framed for something we hadn’t done. It would be their word against ours.
Thoughts of hesitation had come to mind before posting on Facebook during and after the trip, but I’d believed the need for speaking out against injustice was far greater than worrying about the futuristic immigration status of family members. At this point, I felt that anyone in our position would have done the same.
It wasn’t until two days later when my husband and I talked in detail about our harrowing journey did I learn that he had been suffering silently for the past six months.
I had noticed he left significantly early for the airport even though his flights were local, but I never thought anything was wrong. For the past six months, he was continuously harassed, singled out, scrutinized and criminalized during every stop, and he had never told me about it. When I asked him why, he looked away and said through his teeth,
“Because I knew you’d speak out.”
Here were two individuals in one household that had faced injustice, one more so than the other, and reacted very differently. I wondered then whether my actions were selfish, motivated by instinct. I knew I hadn’t intended that, but my family, even my husband, appeared to think otherwise.
Perhaps as a writer, and a fighter, I was accustomed to sharing my stories because I felt they relayed a bigger picture, even if they were deeply personal or painful. My husband on the other hand, opted for a non-confrontational approach, attempting to keep us safe by carrying the burden silently, until that burden ended up affecting us all.
PROFILING TODAY IS AT AN ALL TIME HIGH.
Shortly after 9/11, the rise of people from Middle Eastern descent being profiled at airports skyrocketed, and the number has only increased after the recent Paris and San Bernadino attacks. In a letter written to the U.S Department of Transportation by Farhana Khera of Muslim Advocates and Sherrilyn Ifill of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, Inc. they note that within the past six months alone, a total of eleven religious and racial profiling incidents have been reported. This includes “Muslim passengers and passengers of color who have been cleared by airport security and are repeatedly ejected from U.S aircrafts, or prevented from boarding.” Some of these reported cases garner widespread attention, but most do not file a formal complaint, and with no database being publicly available to track such incidents, racial profiling incidents go under the radar. And their implications on society are even worse, as noted in a Pilot Survey on Racial Differences in Customs Searches by criminologist Scott Wortley, who says, “to argue that racial profiling is harmless is to totally ignore the psychological and social damage that can result from always being considered one of the usual suspects.”
The weeks that followed our trip consisted of sleepless nights filled with anxiety and paranoia. I worried that my family may be in danger; I would walk around the house with a kitchen skewer and check on my sleeping children throughout the night. The trauma was so real that my husband vehemently refused to travel with me on my school trip to Boston our entire family planned to take months ago because he didn’t want to put our children through a similar ordeal again.
In a letter of support submitted by the American Psychological Association (APA) for the End Racial Profiling Act (ERPA), their Public Policy Office notes that victims of racial profiling experience “post-traumatic stress disorder and other forms of stress-related disorders, and perceptions of race-related threats.” At the very surface, it seemed that our situation was a case of profiling and being singled out because we had previously traveled to Iraq or Saudi Arabia for pilgrimage, or because we were brown, or because I was visibly wearing the head covering that identified us as Muslim. It all made sense.
Until I dug deeper.
My husband had mentioned in our lengthy conversations after our Vancouver trip that he had applied for a redress and filed a formal complaint with the Department of Homeland Security a couple months ago. He had followed up twice to no avail, and had noticed a mysterious SSSS imprint recurring on his boarding pass.
When I navigated through the internet to research what this imprint stood for, I found out that the SSSS, which was short for “Secondary Security Screening Selection” was a terror watch list, whose list was secret and the numbers and names of the list were sealed from the public, although the TSA says “there are tens of thousands of names on it.”
I couldn’t tell whether this imprint was due to racial profiling and travel patterns or he was flagged because his name was mixed up with someone else; I called the TSA, I spoke to the lawyers, I emailed the head offices of civil liberties organizations like Council of American Islamic Relations (CAIR) and American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), but no one would give us any answers. But his name had ended up on a terror watch list, and there was no telling how to get off it.
It was all coming together, like thousands of puzzle pieces connecting around the edges. In their eyes, we were already terrorists.
EARLIER ON AUGUST 17 THIS YEAR, UK resident Sakina Dharas, her sister Maryam and brother Ali, were ejected from their Easyjet flight bound for Italy because two fellow passengers accused them of being ISIS terrorists. Although they were allowed back on the flight after an hour of interrogation by the police, Dharas later told me in a phone interview her story gained press coverage after she took to Facebook sharing vivid details of the appalling encounter.
“We’ve just eased ourselves into our seats, when a stone-faced air hostess approaches us, and with one gnarly finger, beckons for us to follow her” she narrated once they were allowed back on, her post quickly going viral.
But when I asked about speaking out, she said her original intention was to write in a satirical way, blow off some steam and “see if any of [her] friends had experienced anything similar.” In trying to understand the difference between speaking out and reporting abuse, Dharas clarified in a statement over email that “I wouldn’t condone that people share their stories if it would put them in danger. The sanctity and safety of one’s life comes first, but reporting abuse is a right and they can take this avenue instead.”
And yet, it was important for Dharas to share her story with the press later on, she emphasized, because it was ludicrous to experience “that Muslims like me, law-abiding professionals contributing to society, could be subject to profiling and accused so easily of being part of a terror group. We are part of the fabric of society and I had to make a stand for those who had been in my position before, who, for whatever reason hadn’t spoken out”. Although the airline later apologized and was under much scrutiny, they said the report made by the couple who claimed the siblings supported ISIS “was of good intent” because they had thought there was Arabic on their phones. “We don’t even know Arabic, we’re not even Arabs, but the way they could make those claims and get away with it is just horrible” Dharas said. “We were absolutely humiliated.”
This story sent shivers down my spine, because as someone who gets peace, clarity and purpose to better myself as a human being from reading the Qur’an, I realized that in order to avoid such situations, Muslims could find themselves foregoing important traditions out of fear of the status quo. And ultimately, as we shed our layers one by one, we wouldn’t have anything left at all.
“But I think that each person must weigh the personal risk themselves,” Majeda Qasim, a friend of mine in Tampa, Florida, told me. “Truth is always worth it, no matter the price, but when one has others to think of, it does give pause.”
Qasim was detained twice by border patrol when trying to cross into the US from Canada. The first time, in 2010, she was traveling with her elderly mother and children when about 10 police officers ambushed her with their weapons drawn and asked them to exit their vehicle. They were both detained while the police took the children until matters were sorted out. The second time was during her pregnancy in March 2015, when she was detained again by border patrol, as her children and husband waited for her. “The officers kept peeking in to see who was detained; I felt like I was on display and it was humiliating.” Eventually when she was given the clearance and a card to contact DHS, she contacted them right away, only to be given the answer “We have no information, ma’am.” It had been almost six years since Qasim attempted to cross the border between the two incidents, and now she told me warily, “I will not be surprised if it happens again.”
Up to this point, I had assumed my family and others like us were flagged because we were Muslim, or brown, or both. Then I spoke to Sadie Jones.
A college student in Utah, Jones was the prototype white ‘American’ with blonde hair and hazel eyes, or at least I thought so when her cousin, a classmate of mine, introduced us after hearing my story. On a trip to Mexico with her family, Jones was called out immediately during checking in at the counter and was given a boarding pass with the SSSS imprint; this led to a series of security searches the rest of the family didn’t have to go through, including a full body cavity search. “They searched under my bra, underwear and in every pocket. They were super disorganized and very rude,” she said. The family stalled the airline so she wouldn’t miss the flight, and after writing to DHS, the redress number she was given worked the next time she flew. “I think it’s important to speak out,” said Jones. “It’s the only way people will become more aware of the situation, and at the very least, perhaps the TSA personnel will change their ways and treat people with respect rather than dehumanize them.”
But Sadie Jones made her flight. And Sadie Jones’ redress worked the first time she applied for it. It is unsettling to think that her situation may actually have been a mix up of names or a random selection and that was why it was resolved quickly. Did this mean, then, that other cases like my husband’s were specifically targeted?
Soon after our Vancouver trip, I had to travel again to Boston to attend classes at Harvard, and I was sure I would get stopped and harassed again. On my way to the airport, I got into an accident when a car rear-ended me. By the time the insurance swapping was over and I had the medics check on the children to make sure they were okay, I made it to the airport with twenty eight minutes left to board. It was probably a record breaking marathon that would give Usain Bolt a run for his money, but I begged my way into the long security lines, and made it to the boarding area huffing and puffing. I was surprised at each point that I was able to pass with such ease, until I realized our painful experience in Vancouver was because of my husband, and his SSSS imprint.
IN 2012, HASNAIN JAFFER EXPERIENCED HIS FIRST SSSS experience.
After my viral post on Facebook, his wife Sabera reached out to me and said her husband had been encountering similar problems.
When I called him, I found out he had been experiencing four years of harassment on every flight and connection. With no criminal background, and having lived in America for forty four years, Jaffer has done everything he can to speak out against being unfairly targeted. “I have written letters, I have complained, I have called, I have even gone to a lawyer,” he told me on the phone. “But they give me the same reply, that this is random. Does it look random to you?”
Enduring a similar process that comes with the Secondary Screening, Jaffer’s ID beeps through the security gate, where he is taken aside and questioned, screened twice and when he travels with family, they are also subjugated to additional screening. “They treat me like garbage,” he continued on the phone. “It’s like I’m a criminal. I don’t look forward to flying at all, and I’ve minimalized it because of this issue.”
The anger and frustration in his voice caused our conversation to linger in silence. I understood this pain, and his was far greater than mine, but we both wondered what the way forward was. I couldn’t imagine having to live with this for four years like he had, when I wasn’t able to handle just one traumatic experience. “When you are flagged, you understand how it is. The flag is on you, and in their eyes you’re damned for life. Who has the power to do that?” he asked.
MARIAM SALEH, A LAWYER WHO CURRENTLY VOLUNTEERS her time at a civil liberties organization, believes speaking out is monumental in creating change.
“There is a sense that filing a complaint on your own won’t do anything but there is lack of general awareness that people can approach civil liberties organizations and lawyers will most likely do the formal complaint pro bono.”
In a lengthy 2009 report titled “Unreasonable Intrusions”, the civil liberties organization Muslim Advocates note the DHS has disclosed only limited information about its border search and interrogation policies. Many can end up on this list, and its broadness is what makes it extremely dangerous. The report says that “No DHS policy currently limits the scope of interrogations, and DHS policies remain unknown in the wake of the agency’s ongoing secrecy to Congress and the Public.”
As the redress process works for some, and apparently not for many others, filing a complaint through a civil liberties organization seems to be the only solution as of yet to begin appealing unjust flagging.
The End Racial Profiling Act, brought by the Judiciary House of Congress and sponsored by Rep. John Conyers, had support last year but quickly fizzled out. Pressing legislators for policy change is now the only avenue to drive this act forward.
Dr. Michael Shank, professor at George Mason’s University notes that if revered civil rights leader Dr Martin Luther King jr. was alive today, DHS would also have him on the SSSS watch list. Known for his arousing speeches, non violence stances, educated and powerful rhetoric, Dr King was “the right person at the right time to assume that leadership role” in a political backdrop that threatened the rights of the black minority and dehumanized them. Here, why the legendary Dr. King Jr. would have been on the list is less important than what he would have done about it.
If I hadn’t posted on social media, I wouldn’t have known about the hundreds of people who experience the same thing every day, or the media outlets that shared my story and created the awareness we need. If my husband is on the list today, who’s to say we can’t all be in the list tomorrow? Even though it may seem like things will never change, achieving justice is a ripple effect, based on small acts and changes.
Human beings are not human beings without dignity; we all want it, strive for it, and respect it. As one participant, R. R, in Wortley’s inquiry noted “Some people feel [profiling] is justifiable because… it is relatively easy and convenient to group certain clusters together based on statistics… [but] each person wants to be viewed and treated as an individual. Think about the harm that is being done to those who find themselves within a cluster they do not belong in.”
Yesterday, as mom and I cleared the table, she told me my Great uncle had called her again and warned her about me. I held my breath, expecting the worst. No matter how steadfast one is in their beliefs, moms have a way of making our legs feel jiggly, and I didn’t want to go there.
She looked at me with approving eyes, “I told him you’re doing the right thing.”
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