I was racially profiled at JFK airport – and that was even before Donald Trump made Islamophobia acceptable
‘Name?’ He asked as he sized me up and down. I answered. ‘Naaah, come on’ he insisted. ‘Say it like you would say it in Arabic. Don’t you guys have like a way of saying it?’
Ever since I can remember, I have been immersed in American culture.
So when my school organized a class trip to New York back in 2010, I was ecstatic. I begged my parents for days to be allowed to go to the Big Apple – the city where Carrie and the girls went for brunch and where Rachel got off the plane.
It felt strangely like a homecoming. Throughout my lonely childhood, these movies and TV shows provided me with a much needed escape. They gave me my accent, my sense of humor, and my dreams of being a writer. Although nothing about my upbringing or my family was American, I certainly felt a part of me was.
“Ma’am, please step aside and follow me”.
I looked back at my history teacher for reassurance as the security guard at JFK indicated I was not allowed to go through like the rest of my friends despite having the same Cypriot passport that most of them carried.
Confused, my teacher inquired as to why, out of the 30+ kids on the trip, I had been selected for further screening. I saw him look to his left where he found that my Hijab-wearing classmate was also selected. Then I saw him look to the ground and sigh in disbelief.
My teacher protested that as we were under 18 and on a school trip, he was unable to leave us unsupervised. It took a lot of convincing, but the guard finally let him accompany us to the questioning area.
I was scared. I didn’t know what I had done. Had I left some tweezers in my hand luggage?
“Name?” He asked as he sized me up and down.
He stole the hat off my head, sniggered and demanded that I “say it in Arabic!”
Taken aback, I repeated it in the exact same way I had just said it… I was intimidated and confused as there was no other, more “Arabic” way to say it.
“Naaah, come on” he insisted. “Say it like you would say it in Arabic. Don’t you guys have like a way of saying it?” He proceeded to put on an accent and say my name in funny voices.
I looked around to see if I was the only one who found this so colossally offensive – but none of the other agents seemed to bat an eyelid. I couldn’t believe how shamelessly this man was ridiculing my heritage and then so brazenly asking me to get in on the joke!
“Marital Status?” he asked smugly.
Infuriated by his condescension, I responded with: “I’m 17, I’m on a school trip – I’m single.”
“Alright, alright” he snickered “I don’t know…. It’s just… you never know with you guys…” he winked at me, as though to say he was shocked that my Syrian-Lebanese family hadn’t already traded me in to my husband’s family for a few camels.
“Ma’am I see some Lebanese stamps here. Do you LIKE Lebanon?” the man asked me.
Do I like Lebanon? My heart sunk. What exactly did he want me to say?
Fifteen minutes into landing at JFK, I found myself essentially being asked to reject my heritage, my family and myself just so I could be accepted into the city of my dreams. A whirlwind of anger, rejection and confusion bubbled up inside me.
I was outraged. But above all, I was heartbroken at the notion that if I had been someone else, if I had been from anywhere else, New York might have been just as happy to see me as I was it. If my family hadn’t been born where they were born, I thought, would I have been allowed to go through like the rest of my friends? Would I have been allowed keep my dignity and self-respect?
My teacher was furious as he walked us out of the questioning area a full hour later, unable to comprehend how his 17-year-old student had seriously just been asked if she had ties to Hezbollah. For the first time in my whole life since my sheltered childhood in Cyprus, I had been made to feel ashamed because of who I was.As soon as I walked out, I felt the overwhelming urge to retreat into myself and get right back on that plane home. Sadly, it had become apparent that the love and respect I had for America wasn’t mutual.
This happened 6 years ago – and while I wasn’t physically mistreated, I was unmistakably racially profiled and singled out to be mocked and relentlessly questioned. So amidst this whole mess of a US election and the shamelessly xenophobic (and more specifically Islamophobic) rhetoric that has been spreading during this campaign, I thought I’d offer a few words of encouragement to those of us who are fighting stereotypes about ourselves every day. Keep fighting, guys. Keep educating and above all, stay respectful and proud of yourselves and where you come from. Hopefully someday soon all of this will blow over and we’ll all be a little kinder to one another.