College Student Kicked Off Flight After He Speaks Arabic

April 18, 2016, 12:23 AM UTC
DENVER, CO. - February 20, 2015: Southwest Airlines aircraft at Concourse "C" at the Denver International Airport. February 20, 2015 Denver, CO (Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)
Photograph by Joe Amon — Denver Post via Getty Images

Southwest Airlines removed a college student from an airplane after a passenger heard him speaking Arabic and notified the flight crew. A senior at the University of California at Berkeley, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, says on April 6, he was speaking to his uncle in Baghdad in Arabic, when he noticed a female passenger staring at him.

Seated on a Southwest flight heading from Los Angeles to San Francisco, Makhzoomi said he didn’t understand why she was staring at him. But then, according to an account he gave the Daily Californian, a Berkeley student-run paper, he saw the woman get up from her seat and thought, “I hope she’s not reporting me.”

When he escorted off the plane and detained by security officers, he became upset. “I told them, ‘This is what Islamophobia looks like,’” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “And that’s when they said I could not get on the plane, and they called the FBI.”

The passenger apparently said that she heard the word “shahid,” which means martyr. Makhzoomi denied that and said that he used the common Arabic expression, “inshallah,” which means “God willing,” according to the Daily Californian.

Makhzoomi, a 26-year-old Iraqi refugee, left Iraq in 2002 after his father, an Iraqi diplomat, was killed under Saddam Hussein’s regime. He and his family fled to Jordan before settling in the U.S.. He had called his uncle from the plane because he wanted to tell him about a dinner he’d attended the day before where he heard the Secretary-General of the United Nations Ban Ki-moon speak. “I was very excited about the event so I called my uncle to tell him about it,” he said.

At the gate, Makhzoomi says authorities questioned him and one allegedly publicly searched his genital area. “That is when I couldn’t handle it and my eyes began to water,” he told the Berkeley student paper. “The way they searched me and the dogs, the officers, people were watching me and the humiliation made me so afraid.”

A spokeswoman for the F.B.I. told The New York Times that agents found there to be no threat. “We determined that no further action was necessary,” she said.

Southwest refunded his ticket.

According to the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), there have been at least six similar types of cases of Muslims removed from flights this year. Another Muslim passenger was removed from a flight in Chicago last week. CAIR said it is concerned about “baseless harassment” of Muslim passengers.

Southwest Airlines released a statement:

Prior to gate departure of Flight 4260, our Flight Crew decided to investigate potentially threatening comments made onboard our aircraft. Based upon the reported comments and further discussion, our Flight Crew made the decision to deny boarding to this Customer. We understand local law enforcement spoke with that Passenger at a later time. To respect the privacy of those involved, our policy is to not publicly share specifics of the event, as we try to work with individual passengers to address concerns or feedback regarding their experience. We regret any less than positive experience onboard our aircraft.

Southwest Employees welcome onboard hundreds of millions of Customers each year. We wouldnt remove passengers from flights without a collaborative decision rooted in established procedures. We aim to safely transport every Customer while maintaining the comfort of all. Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind.