Disabled Muslim man faces airlines harassment
by Samana Siddiqui
By his appearance, you would not be able to guess that Samir (his last name is not being used due to privacy concerns), a Portland, Oregon-based senior computer consultant, is a Muslim. He's white and European, Bosnian to be exact. But it was allegedly his name that caused him to endure a physically and emotionally painful episode of anti-Muslim harassment in San Francisco on September 16.
"I am a Muslim and I'm proud of that. I am in a wheelchair because I am a Muslim. My mother and sister are dead because they were Muslims. Everyone in Bosnia who was a Muslim was a target and they were bombing my village because it was a Muslim village," he tells Sound Vision in an interview from Portland.
Samir lost the ability to walk after a Serb attack on his village, Buzim, in northwestern Bosnia almost a decade ago. The same attack killed his mother and sister. He has been on a wheelchair ever since.
He was in Bosnia visiting family when the September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center's twin towers and the Pentagon occurred. Samir had to cut short his trip because of work. He left on September 16 from Zagreb, Croatia to Frankfurt, Germany. From Frankfurt, he flew to San Francisco.
Apart from stricter security measures which all passengers were subjected to, Samir was not treated differently from anyone else on the flights he took to the US. "They were professional, they checked everything, removed what could not go and put me on plane," he says. Removed items included nail files and clippers. "I came to San Francisco without any problems."
After passing through US customs, where he was asked to submit his luggage for a random check, he headed to the United Airlines counter to get his boarding pass for the flight from San Francisco to Portland. Once he arrived there though, he discovered the flight was canceled. There were no other flights going to Portland, so Samir asked if the airline's employees at the counter could find him a flight from a different company. They agreed and found an Alaska Airlines flight going to Portland an hour-and-a-half later.
Samir headed to the Alaska Airlines gate. After thoroughly checking his luggage, (a duffel bag, a piece of carry on luggage and a box with his old wheelchair in it), an aisle chair, which is used to seat disabled passengers on airplanes, was brought for him and he was seated.
As other passengers began boarding, one of the Alaska Airline's employees working at the counter informed Samir that his luggage needed to undergo a routine check. He said fine. A few minutes later, the same employee came back to ask what was in the large box. The box was vibrating. When Samir told him it was his old wheelchair, the employee asked if it was manual or electric. It was manual. This scene was repeated twice after this, with Samir telling the employee after the third time that he could open the box and check for himself what was inside.
'I'm afraid we can't do that. We've called the FBI you will have to leave the plane,' the airlines employee told Samir, he recalls.
With the other passengers staring at him, an embarrassed Samir left the plane to be met by two US marshals, a policewoman and a man from US customs. The FBI arrived shortly after that with bomb-sniffing dogs.
After thoroughly checking his luggage, Samir's old wheelchair was repacked in another box. Although he felt embarrassed, he says he understood the necessity for the airlines to be more careful.
"I know what had happened the prior week (the September 11 terrorist attacks) and everybody was scared so I was trying to be supportive and understanding," he says.
By this time, Samir had missed the Alaska Airlines flight to Portland. An employee at the airline's counter helped him get to another flight from the same company that, it turned out, was going directly to Seattle, where Samir would have to catch another flight to Portland.
At this point, after over 11 hours of travel, Samir's back was hurting. Nonetheless, he boarded the airplane's aisle chair, was once again comfortably seated when the employee came back after a few minutes to tell him he would have to get off the plane.
Samir was outraged. Although he complied with the employee's request, he demanded an explanation. He got one which he never expected. "She said because one of the flight attendants did not want me there," says Samir.
He was bumped to a flight the following day. The airlines paid for his hotel stay in San Francisco, where he had to call his family in Bosnia and friends in Portland who were going to pick him up from the airport to let them know he was okay.
The following day, as he was leaving, the same employee who had helped him get on the second airplane the day before asked him for his address. Samir gave her his business card. Two days after getting home, she contacted him and Samir demanded once again to know why he was taken off the second plane.
"I said I want to know exactly what that flight attendant said. Basically she said she was afraid of my name," says Samir. His full name is clearly a Muslim one.
Following this conversation, Samir says a representative from Alaska Airline's customer service department called him to apologize and offered him a free ticket. He refused to take it and instead asked for a written apology, payment for the phone bills he incurred while staying at the hotel as well as the equivalent of one day's salary (he missed a day of work because of this ordeal).
"I did get a letter from them apologizing," says Samir. "They said that what happened to me was not because of my name but because of the concerns they had about the way my wheelchair was packaged. I would buy that if it happened once and they let me get on the second plane. But to have the FBI and everyone check and repack my wheelchair and say that (his name) was the reason I could not travel (the second time is unacceptable)."
"I will try to avoid flying anytime soon just because I had enough problems and I don't want to deal with this anymore," adds Samir. "It doesn't feel good to be taken off the plane two times and people are looking at you. I can just imagine what was going through their minds."
Samir is also upset about the targeting and harassment of Islam, Muslims and Arabs after September 11.
"I had a lot of Americans who called me and asked me if I was okay. I do appreciate that but the reality is that the majority of people are looking at Muslims right now as if all of us did this (the terrorist act of September 11). I obey the law, I pay my taxes and this shouldn't be happening," he says.
"I don't like what happened on the 11th but I don't like what's happening now either," he adds, referring to the harassment. "No one blamed all Christians when 10,000 Muslims were killed in Srebrenica," he points out referring to the massacre of Muslim boys and men by Serb forces during the summer of 1995 in this part of Bosnia.