It’s been a while since I wrote a non-points-related post, and I thought this topic would be a good one because I have PLENTY to say. It only became top of mind because of a post written by fellow Boarding Area blogger Muslim Travel Girl, who experienced a little extra questioning due to…well, you can be the judge of why exactly she was stopped. I’ll share a few personal stories here.So let me preface all of this by saying I’m 28 years old and I’m Muslim. I was born and raised in Southern California to Pakistani parents who came to this country in the 1970’s. Thankfully they loved to travel, and as a kid I got to tag along on trips with my two older siblings. This is probably where I caught the travel bug, in addition to seeing my older brother go on work trips in Business Class from time to time.
But then 9/11 happened when I was in 9th grade. Most of the things classmates said at the time was done in jest, and I’m a good-humored guy, so at the age of 15 I didn’t care about the jokes. In fact, I joined in with some of these jokes, which were in bad taste looking back.
The point I’m making is that what happened on 9/11, and certainly every terrorist attack committed by so-called Muslims since, has felt so far removed from me and my religion that I didn’t even care to get involved. It hadn’t impacted me in California…yet.
Traveling as a Muslim
When I turned 18, something strange started to happen. Every time I went to the airport to check-in to my flight after turning 18, I had some difficulty. I could never check-in at the kiosk or online, and even the agents were suddenly unable to check me in themselves. They now needed to get approval from a second person, sometimes over the phone and sometimes someone had to physically come see me. On more than a few occasions, an armed officer also appeared behind the desk as they waited for approval.
“Weird,” I thought to myself.
I used to tell friends about this all the time; many laughed or joked about it, but I don’t think anyone really understood or believed me. When I graduated college I got a job in Consulting, and my first work trip was a training session in Florida. I had mentioned to my new coworkers that I usually have some difficulty at the airport. My coworkers all checked in at the kiosk, I couldn’t. The agent couldn’t check me in either, and we waited and waited. A coworker finally said “Man, you weren’t joking.”
My next 5 years was full of this as you can imagine how much a Consultant had to travel. But that’s literally the smallest portion of what I’ve experienced.
Let’s talk about security checkpoints, which varied widely. For the first 6 years after turning 18 I was given some form of secondary screening about 75% of the time. Yeah yeah, “random” searches and all that. It wasn’t random. I could just tell because TSA started eyeing me with 10 people ahead. I learned early on that I needed tons of time at the airport before a flight and adjusted my travel plans accordingly.
[As an aside, in the miles/points world it’s not uncommon to book lots of one-way tickets. Also, I personally hate checking in a bag because I feel it’s a waste of time to wait for it at the end of my flight. So imagine a guy like me on a one way ticket with only carry-on luggage.]
What about outside the US? This was a more interesting experience. There are certain airports that were horrible, while most were completely fine. The worst ones that immediately come to mind were/are Paris, everywhere in Germany, and Vancouver. Secondary screening in Vancouver was quite a story.
US Immigration is taken care of in Vancouver, so I met with the Immigration Officer there. I had just spent a night in Vancouver after a round-the-world trip of sorts and was on my last leg going home. This was during the one year I took off from work to spend traveling, and that’s why it became particularly interesting (I actually mentioned this incident briefly at the end of a hotel review post). He asked me what I do for a living, and I said I was a travel blogger. He asked for details upon details. What magazine do I write in (none obviously), what topics do I write about, why, how do I afford to travel so much, etc. He asked for the name of my blog, which I gave him. He literally typed it into his computer and went to the Travel Summary home page. Except he saw a few posts on manufactured spending and liquidating gift cards, and I guess became suspicious. Flipping through my passport he said it looks like I’ve been to the Middle East a lot…and I mentioned I had only a single Middle Eastern stamp in my passport. All this while he’s being as much of a prick as you can imagine someone being. Oh, and this was in the Global Entry line.
I got sent to secondary screening, which is a separate room. Basically, you get sent there to sit doing nothing for at least an hour. You’re not allowed to use your cell phone so you can’t check your flight status or notify any friends/family. You’re not allowed to talk, and you can’t leave the room. You sit until someone comes to talk to you. Finally, after over an hour, and after I’d missed my flight, a very nice Immigration Officer came to ask me some of the same questions I was just asked earlier. What I do for a living, how I make money, where I’ve gone, etc. I was finally allowed to leave, now having to figure out getting on the next flight home.
I’m a US Citizen, so one would think (or at least I did many years ago) that returning home from an international trip with my US Passport in hand would be a breeze. It used to be when I was a kid, but as an adult that changed. The type of questions I was asked when re-entering the country are absolutely ridiculous. Here’s a quick snippet of a conversation I had a few years back when coming home from London and Paris. And there’s is absolutely no exaggeration here:
Immigration Officer: Where did you go on this trip?
Me: London and Paris
Immigration Officer: What did you do there
Me: Just sightseeing, the usual
Immigration Officer: Did you go to Saudi Arabia on this trip?
Immigration Officer: How about Pakistan?
Me: I went to London and Paris.
Immigration Officer: Did you participate in any training? Shoot any guns?
Me: [Laughing] Are you serious?
Immigration Officer: Please answer the question.
Me: No, I didn’t…
And this happened almost every time I spoke with an Immigration Officer. Ridiculous questions about Iran and Syria (both of which I’ve never been to), what business I had wherever I just came from, why I took so many flights, and more. I’ve been asked detailed questions about what I do for a living (as in what are my tasks in day-to-day work), how much money I make, why I have so many stamps in my passport, why I’ve been to Pakistan, and other questions about a range of topics. It didn’t matter whether I had just been to Western Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia, or whatever. Always questions about these things.
The worst part is the fact that they’re just trying to make me agitated and upset. They ask questions looking to hear you slip on your words so they can exclaim “gotcha!” and take me into the back room. Thankfully I eventually always got the “Welcome Home” greeting, the sincerity of which always sounded questionable.
I Had It Easy!
What I just explained sucked (and sometimes still does suck) to go through, but it wasn’t even close to being the worst. In fact, my older brother went through far worse. He’s 8 years older than me, so he got to experience it all way before me (turning 18 seems to be the magic number). Here’s another story:
My brother was probably about 26 and we were all on the way back from a family trip (I forget from where). My brother insisted that he go through Immigration separately because it always takes him longer to clear – he knew this because of various international work trips he took at the time. He thought that the rest of us might as well go grab all the checked luggage while he finishes up.
Long story short, a couple hours later my family and I are sitting in the baggage claim area and have no idea where my brother is. None of the Immigration personnel would tell us anything. After 3 hours he finally appeared and said he was basically interrogated about every detail of his life.
Here’s my final story: I went with my brother to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. We’re big fans of ice hockey, and we were lucky enough to get to watch a ton of games including the Men’s Ice Hockey Final, which pitted Team Canada vs. Team USA in a thriller. It was probably the best game I’d ever been to as Team USA tied it with seconds left to take the game to overtime. My brother and I were just a small fraction of fans cheering for Team USA, as the crowd was heavily Canadian as one would expect in Vancouver. Unfortunately Team USA lost in overtime, but I had loads of fun. We headed straight for the airport after the game.
As usual, my brother and I went through Immigration separately because of his usual delay. Remember Vancouver airport’s secondary screening? Well, my bro got selected for that, except I had no idea since I miraculously passed through with ease this day. When I went through immigration I waited a few minutes, but couldn’t see him. Perhaps he’d passed me without me seeing – I went to our gate, checked the restaurants and the shops, but no sign of him. No messages on my phone from him. I asked the Officer at the Immigration exit (the one you hand your declaration card to at the end), and he went through all the cards and didn’t see my brother’s name on any, so he was still in the Immigration area. Thankfully, someone let my brother walk to the door of the secondary room to waive to me that he was still there (he knew I’d be worried). I took a seat outside and waited.
A full 6 hours later, well beyond the time our flight had left (and, in fact, landed at home), my brother was released. He was told they needed to get approval from someone in Washington DC before letting him through. So we missed our flight, and there was nothing else we could get on for the night. We had to get a hotel. And remember, it was the last days of the Olympics, so the best we could do was the $600+/night Fairmont at the airport. We both missed work the next day as well since our original flights were on a Sunday.
All this after waiving the US Flag and wearing Team USA jerseys to represent our country.
First of all, let me just mention that this post is already very long so I left out TONS of other stories. I left out all the times when every piece of my clothing was removed from bags to be checked (sometimes even twice before getting on the plane), stories of traveling within Europe, and even the things people have straight up said to me. There’s so much more but I thought the above stories would be illustrative enough.
My point is this – it sucks to travel as a Muslim. Even with Global Entry, which helped a little but clearly not in Vancouver, the security experience can suck (though I’d still much rather have it for the times it does work). There’s no doubt in my mind that I’m profiled. I’m a little brown, I have some facial hair, my name (Omar) sounds Middle Eastern enough, and my family background is from a country most Americans are deathly afraid of because of what they see in the news.
Does that make it OK that this happens to me, my family, some friends, and undoubtedly millions of others with similar backgrounds? No. But people are just so afraid these days that they think this makes them safe. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t a sob story and I’m certainly not looking for sympathy. I’ve learned to live with all of this and just accept it as a part of my life. Just like I accept that the government probably monitors my phone calls and other things. Think I’m joking? Check this article about how the FBI planted an informant in my hometown mosque and had him say violent things (my favorite part of the article is that the informant ended up converting to Islam for real). Or this one about how an FBI agent almost ran over one of my classmates when I was in college at UC Irvine. I literally live under the assumption that I’m being watched, so this is normal for me and many others with my background in this country.
I’m one of those people that believes that I don’t have to apologize about ISIS or Al Qaeda or whatever. Those groups have nothing to do with me and my religion (and indeed, they kill/displace far more Muslims than they kill/displace anyone else). Will I denounce/condemn their actions, like the tragic ones that just occurred in Belgium? Absolutely! I just don’t believe I have to do so any more than my Christian or Jewish or Buddhist or Atheist neighbor would. Just because these terrible groups call themselves Muslim, or just because my name sounds like some of theirs, or just because they’re from the same geographic region as my ancestors were from, doesn’t mean I bear the burden of responsibility in ANY way. My heart aches for victims and their families, as any human’s would/should.
Anyway, those are my two cents. Again, I’m not looking for any sympathy towards me here – I just thought I’d explain all the things that happen to me before and after a flight review since the topic came up elsewhere.
As always, Happy (and Safe) Travels!