Iraqi refugee taken off California flight
April 18, 2016
Southwest Airlines escorted an Iraqi refugee off a flight in Los Angeles after another passenger became alarmed when she heard the man speaking in Arabic. Federal investigators later determined the man posed no threat, but the Iraqi-American man is accusing the airline of Islamophobia. [New York Times]
Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, 26, is a senior at University of California Berkeley. Makhzoomi lives with his mother and younger brother in Oakland. His father was an Iraqi diplomat whom Saddam Hussein jailed in Abu Ghraib prison. The dictator’s regime later killed him.
On April 6, Makhzoomi boarded a Southwest Airlines flight at LAX that was headed for Oakland. After boarding, Makhzoomi called an uncle in Baghdad to tell him that he had just heard United Nation Secretary General Ban Ki-moon deliver a speech.
Makhzoomi told his uncle that he asked the secretary general a question about ISIS. The conversation ended with the Arabic phrase, “inshallah” or god willing.
A female passenger in a seat nearby overheard the conversation and told the flight crew she heard him making potentially threatening statements.
An Arabic-speaking Southwest Airlines employee of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent then came to Makhzoomi’s seat and asked him why he was speaking in Arabic on the plane. Makhzoomi responded by saying, “This is what Islamophobia got this country into.”
The Southwest employee then escorted him off the plane, and Makhzoomi accused the employee of anti-Muslim bias.
Law enforcement officials searched Makhzoomi in the airport terminal in front of a crowd of onlookers, including other officers and a police dog. Three FBI agents then arrived and questioned him in a private room.
Makhzoomi said an FBI agent told him the Southwest Airlines employee said a passenger reported hearing him talk in Arabic about martyrdom, using a phrase often associated with jihadists. Makhzoomi denied the charge and returned to the terminal where the Arabic-speaking employee refunded his ticket.
The Berkeley student booked a new flight on Delta Air Lines and arrived in Oakland eight hours after he had planned. Makhzoomi said he does not plan to pursue legal action, but he wants Southwest Airlines to apologize for the ways its employees treated him.
Zahra Biloo, of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said there have been at least six cases of airlines pulling Muslims off flights so far this year. Southwest Airlines released a statement saying it does not condone or tolerate discrimination of any kind.