When Ahmed comes home

Ahmed Shihab-Eldin is an American journalist of Palestinian origin who has worked at a range of news organizations in the US and abroad and often has to go on overseas assignments. He says that he dreads coming back because of the appalling way he is treated every time by US immigration officials. He recounts his experiences, including the latest one when he was returning from covering the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland.

The last four times I’ve traveled abroad (to Turkey, Kuwait, Lebanon and Switzerland), Homeland Security has detained me upon arrival. It’s as frustrating as it is ironic, because although in Arabic my name, Ahmed, means, “blessed,” each time I land at JFK airport, I can’t help but feel somewhat cursed.

On Sunday night, after attending the World Economic Forum in Davos for the first time, I was detained for two hours upon arrival. In October, I was held for almost four, returning home after a 14-hour trip to Turkey where I moderated a UN conference on peace in the Middle East. For what it’s worth, I breezed through security in Istanbul.

In Davos — where I interviewed some of the world’s wealthiest, most powerful and highest-profile people — the running joke among our production team, and many of the other participants was how unusually friendly and hospitable the thousands of police officers, special forces, and security guards were. My team passed through security checkpoint after checkpoint at each of the various venues with respect and dignity.

Why does he get this treatment every time in the US?

Why then, you might be wondering, am I detained every time I set foot on U.S. soil? As it is always abstractly and bluntly explained to me: My “name” and “my profile” are simply a “match.”

In fact in 2005, 30,000 airline passengers discovered they were mistakenly placed on federal “Terrorist” watch lists, Jim Kennedy, director of the Transportation Security Administration’s redress office revealed. I was frustrated, but did not pity myself, though I found the fact that so many children were in the room with me to be pitiful.

Even if one applies the better-safe-than-sorry mentality, it doesn’t justify the fact that Najila Hicks’ 8-year-old son Mikey found himself on the list. That, one would imagine would be easy to correct, but as she told the New York Times,”it should not take seven years to correct the problem.”

Anyone can find themselves on “the list.” Children, elderly people and even the late Senator Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts found himself on the list in 2004. But unlike Senator Kennedy, I couldn’t enlist the help of Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to help me get off it.

Just today, Alec Baldwin’s 5-month-old daughter was “randomly selected.” He tweeted about his own experience, adding the hashtag #travelinginUSisadisgrace

Last week, I attended a function hosted by the Graduate Student Senate at my university and at lunch sat at a table with international students, four of whom were from Iran. They all said that unlike graduate students from most countries who had multiple entry visas that allowed them to leave the US and return fairly freely, they were issued only single-entry visas. As a result, they all have decided not to go home to visit their families because if they do, they have to go through the whole process of applying for a visa again without any guarantee that they will get one. Even if they do, it is not uncommon for the process to take months, which would be disastrous for their studies. So they are going to stay here without going home as long as it takes for them to finish their degrees.


  1. colnago80 says

    Here’s another slant on the situation in Iran. I know a fellow, originally from Iran, who is on the engineering faculty of the California Polytechnic Institute, Pomona. He originally came over here as a graduate student. During a phone conversation with his mother, who was still in Iran, she told him don’t come back to Iran. If they kick you out, go to Canada, go to England, go to France; don’t come back here. This over an open phone line, almost certainly monitored by the regime.

    I know nothing about Shihab-Eldin but, unfortunately, all Palestinians are suspect because of extremist elements like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, etc. I know a colleague whose family was originally from Acre who left in 1948 for Jordan. He used to visit Israel occasionally, where he has relatives, before 9/11, where he told me that he was treated fairly. Unfortunately, since 9/11 both the US and Israel have become super cautious with who they let in, not surprisingly. Sometimes the innocent must suffer with the guilty.

  2. A Masked Avenger says

    Sometimes the innocent must suffer with the guilty.

    Yes, collateral damage and all that. /sarc

    The guilty are so few in number as to be practically nonexistent--one in millions of flyers, or one in hundreds of millions of tickets. This harassment will do little or nothing to stop a determined terrorist, but it violates the rights of millions daily. That’s not the innocent suffering along with the guilty. That’s police-state behavior.

  3. Rob Grigjanis says

    Profiling by ‘dangerous nationality or origin’ would require that Americans get detained and checked thoroughly everywhere they travel abroad. All Americans are suspect because of extremist elements like the US government, the CIA, Wall Street, etc.

  4. colnago80 says

    Re #2

    Not so few as you believe. There are thousands of Muslims who belong to various terrorist groups. Many of them are currently fighting in Syria for one side or the other (there appear to be several sides in Syria). Perhaps we are overacting but better to be safe then sorry. We just had an experience a few months ago from a couple of them in Boston, where a number of warning signs were ignored.

  5. kevinalexander says

    Alec Baldwin’s 5-month-old daughter was “randomly selected.”

    You never know. Those devious terrorists could hide some nasty shit in a baby’s diaper.

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