Update 04/15/2016: This article has been updated to reflect a response from Southwest Airlines.
On April 6, UC Berkeley senior Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was supposed to fly from Los Angeles to Oakland, get to campus and go to class. Instead, Makhzoomi was removed from Southwest Airlines flight 4260, detained by security officers, questioned by the FBI and refused service from Southwest after speaking Arabic before his flight took off.
Makhzoomi, a 26-year-old Iraqi refugee, left Iraq in 2002 after his father, an Iraqi diplomat, was killed under Saddam Hussein’s regime. His family fled to Jordan, where they lived until the United States granted his family asylum. Today, Makhzoomi helps his mother care for his younger brother, who was diagnosed with Down syndrome.
One day prior to the incident, Makhzoomi attended a dinner at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council with Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon.
On his way back to Berkeley, Makhzoomi, a loyal Southwest premier rewards member, boarded his flight to Oakland and called his uncle in Baghdad to tell him about Ki-moon’s event. At the end of the phone call, conducted in Arabic, Makhzoomi said goodbye to his uncle with the phrase “inshallah,” which translates to “if God is willing.”
When Makhzoomi hung up, he noticed a female passenger looking at him. Once he made eye contact with her, 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 was removed from the jet bridge and taken back to the gate where more security officers, police dogs and Southwest staff awaited him. 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 publicly 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.”
When the FBI arrived, Makhzoomi said they began questioning him about his family, the phone call he made on the plane and everything he knew about martyrism. After the interrogation was over, an FBI agent informed Makhzoomi that Southwest would not fly him home. Makhzoomi collected his refund and left Terminal 1 to process what had happened.
Makhzoomi called Southwest on Monday and they ensured his status was clear but offered him no apology. He said he considered filing a lawsuit against Southwest but decided against it.
“I don’t want money,” he said. “I don’t care about that. All I want is an apology.”
A statement from Southwest Airlines says that prior to departure, the flight crew decided to investigate “potentially threatening comments” made by Makhzoomi aboard the aircraft.
“We wouldn’t remove passengers from flights without a collaborative decision rooted in established procedures,” the statement reads. “We regret any less than positive experience onboard our aircraft. … Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind.”
Charles Hirschkind, a campus associate professor of anthropology who specializes in Islam and the Middle East, said prejudice against Muslims has institutional effects that manifest in airport security strategies and general police suspicion.
“Since 9/11, we’ve seen a steady increase in anti-Muslim bias and dissemination of fear about Muslims in the United States. That trend has really spiked during this current electoral season,” Hirschkind said. “Candidates have said things like Muslims should not be allowed to immigrate to this country. … All of these kinds of statements really ramp up both the level of fear and also the level of bias and prejudice and racism that Muslims face.”
Since he arrived in the United States, Makhzoomi has worked at a Cheesecake Factory, built a school in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, worked his way through community college, transferred to UC Berkeley where he is part of Model United Nations and the Berkeley Political Review and currently writes for the Huffington Post.
This summer, Makhzoomi will be representing Iraq at the Young Leaders Visitors Programme at the Swedish Institute. Makhzoomi said he hopes to one day return to Iraq, which will always be his home.
“I want to help the situation there as best as I can, and I will begin by focusing on education,” he said. “We need to cross the bridge when it comes to our differences and try to promote tolerance and harmony among Iraqi peoples.”