UC Berkeley alumnus removed from Southwest flight after speaking Arabic files suit

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Ethan Epstein/File

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It has been nearly two years since then-UC Berkeley student Khairuldeen Makhzoomi was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight after speaking Arabic before take-off — now, Makhzoomi is filing a lawsuit against Southwest Airlines for alleged racial discrimination, among other charges.

Makhzoomi is seeking compensatory and punitive damages against Southwest for the alleged violation of his civil rights and for the emotional distress caused during the April 2016 incident, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday. The charges listed in the suit include discrimination, racial discrimination, denial of freedom and equality, negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Southwest Airlines declined to comment.

The incident in question took place on Southwest Airlines flight 4260 from Los Angeles to Oakland. Before the flight, Makhzoomi made a phone call to his uncle in Baghdad. The phone call was conducted in Arabic, and minutes later, an airport employee approached Makhzoomi to remove him from the airplane.

The flight left without him, and Makhzoomi was allegedly publicly searched by local law enforcement, questioned by the FBI and finally informed that, even after being cleared, Southwest would not be flying him home.

Makhzoomi is an Iraqi refugee and is currently pursuing a master’s degree at Georgetown University in Arab studies. Makhzoomi said he decided to pursue a lawsuit against Southwest after he had “waited (long) enough” for an apology that he claims never came.

“Fighting for this injustice will at least bring some peace to me,” Makhzoomi said when asked about his hopes for the lawsuit. “The only way to get (dignity) back is to fight with knowledge and education, … not with ignorance and with hatred.”

Southwest Airlines’ initial response to the incident in 2016 was to defend the actions of its employees, but the company added that it does not “condone” discrimination.

Makhzoomi and his lawyers filed the complaint with the U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The defendants in the case are the Southwest Airlines company and Southwest employee Shoaib Ahmed, who removed him from the plane.

Zahra Billoo, one of Makhzoomi’s attorneys, said Makhzoomi is asking for a jury trial. Billoo is also executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR.

“We filed the lawsuit to hold Southwest accountable for their treatment of Mr. Makhzoomi,” Billoo said. “Our hope is that this lawsuit and our advocacy for our client will send a message that no one is above the law, and (that) discrimination will be challenged.”

Shayann Hendricks covers race and diversity. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @shayannih.