Recently, I arrived at the Newark Liberty International airport from a fantastic trip to Europe. My friends and I slowly made our way out of the plane, laughing over our fun and eye-opening experiences that are typical to Wharton trips (sadly coming to an end as I approach graduation). The fun conversation started to dampen when we realized the long and unpleasant line at U.S. Customs, and it came to a full stop when our friend breezed through customs with that fancy Global Entry and laughed at us foreigners.
As I moved forward in the foreigner visitors’ line at a turtle’s pace, a vaguely familiar video caught my attention. In 2007, Walt Disney partnered with the Department of Home Security to produce a ‘Welcome’ video that is nothing short of a United Colors of Benetton ad in diversity of people. As I watched all the beautiful smiles across the vast land of opportunities in this video, I heard the Customs officer calling out “NEXT!” I crossed the red line, calmly walked over to his desk, smiled and asked how he was doing? At this point, the virtual welcoming smiles were fading behind me and I was confronted with a disgruntled officer asking for my papers. I was quick to hand in my Turkish passport along with my I-20 (a piece of paper that provides supporting information on foreign student status) and was ready to answer some of the typical questions at any U.S. Customs. Here is the conversation we had instead:
Officer: Where did you travel to during this trip?
Me: (trying to be comprehensive) Berlin, Riga, Kiev and Amsterdam
Officer: (looking at my passport again) Did you travel to Syria, Turkey or any of THOSE countries?
Me: (shocked but staying calm) No, sir!
Officer: Were there any Syrians traveling with you?
Me: (impatient to get this interview over with and catch my ride) No, sir!!
He continued to interrogate me, asking about how I pay my tuition and how well I am doing in school (obviously uninitiated to grade non-disclosure). And, I was so tempted to crack jokes about my student loans and our grade non-disclosure policy. However, realizing that any minute misunderstanding might lead to a secondary interview and inspection in a separate room, I kept my mouth shut and answered him directly. He finally stamped my passport and I reached my friends who were impatiently waiting for me at a café, finishing their meals. Even though I entered the U.S. more than 30 times and encountered various screenings and interviews at the borders, I felt more uncomfortable this time and started reflecting on this experience on my way back to Philly.
Having lived, worked and studied in the U.S. for more than 10 years, I have embraced this country as my 2nd home and I have the utmost respect for CBP employees who are safeguarding America’s borders where more than 1 million visitors are welcomed every day. However, I am increasingly coming across examples of disrespectful treatment and unfiltered racial profiling throughout the U.S. My friend, Omar Darwazah (WG ‘15), who holds three nationalities (USA, Jordan and Egypt), was subject to some such bizarre treatment recently…
I remember that day like it was yesterday. On one random afternoon of August 1997, my mother picked up the house landline in Cairo and on the other side was a representative from the US Embassy. “Congratulations!” the representative said, “…you and your family are now ready to immigrate to the United States!”
My father, a very wise man, applied to immigrate to the United States in 1984; the year I was born. At birth, I received Egyptian and Jordanian passports, nationalities of third world countries that would no doubt limit my ability and freedom to travel and narrow my employment opportunities. He recognized the importance of having another passport, especially a passport from the “civilized” Western world.
On April 24th 2007, I fulfilled that dream, I took the Oath of Allegiance and became a newly minted American citizen. My path to citizenship took exactly 23 years from the day my father applied for immigration. With an American passport in hand, I knew my life was about to change forever. I was right, eleven years later, I clocked over 3.5 million miles of travel in 71 countries around the world.
Before obtaining my American citizenship and throughout my life of travels, I had my fair share of border interrogation as an Egyptian/Jordanian. For example, I remember Venezuelan authorities in Caracas scratching their heads as to why an Arab would want to come and live in Venezuela for a month. They found it bizarre that I spoke Spanish, lived in Chicago and decided to come and spend a month with a family on Margarita Island. However, those sorts of incidents became non-existent when I became American until very recently.
A few months ago, on a routine business trip to Munich, I was interrogated by U.S. CBP Officers as I was LEAVING the country. I don’t ever recall a time when I was interrogated on the jetway after my boarding pass was scanned. Here is the conversation I had with the CBP Officer:
Officer: (flicks through my passport) You certainly travel quite a bit don’t you? What takes you to Munich?
Me: Yes, I do, for both business and pleasure but to Munich only business.
Officer: Are you carrying any cash with you? Dollars, Euros, Egyptian ‘money’?
Me: No, I don’t have any cash on me and no I don’t have Egyptian Pounds on me.
Officer: So how are you paying for your expenses?
Me: (puzzled and scratching my head) Ehh with credit cards?!
Officer: It says here you’re born in Egypt. Do you go back often?
Me: I go back a few times a year to visit family and friends.
Officer: I understand but I don’t see any stamps from Egyptian customs in your passport.
Me: I’m a dual citizen officer (triple actually but that was superfluous information to share) and I became a naturalized citizen in 2007. I naturally use my Egyptian passport to enter Egypt.
Officer: That makes sense. So tell me do you speak Egyptian?
Me: (the moment when the conversation took a totally different turn!) I speak Arabic actually, I couldn’t speak ANCIENT Egyptian even if I tried!
Officer: (chuckles and hands me back my passport) Have a safe flight, sir.
I was lucky enough to have had what was a pleasant, innocuous (yet still ignorant) conversation with the CBP Officer. However, most stories that I stumble upon are of discrimination, contempt and disrespect. My friend and Wharton colleague Can Akannac’s (WG ’16) story resonated with me, as a non-American from Turkey, he came under unnecessary scrutiny because of the situation in the Middle East; more specifically in Turkey and Syria.
These stories have become all too familiar. For example, last month a Muslim family, including three young children, were ejected from a United Airlines flight bound to DC from Chicago because of “how they looked”. Even more concerning is the hatred and racism being spewed out of the GOP front-runner Donald Trump (WG ’68). In fact, there is a clear correlation between the number of incidents that racially profile Muslims and Arabs and the rise of Trump over the past 24 months.
Trump has ushered in a period of what I like to deem “ignorant conservative populism”. It is taking America by storm and it has placed the country at the danger of turning free speech into hate speech and democracy into oligarchy.
If Arabs and Muslims are to be racially profiled, singled out and treated with unwarranted indecency, then America is setting a very dangerous precedent for minorities. Even more dangerous is if Trump, a fellow Wharton graduate who clearly does not espouse the same values of tolerance, understanding and co-existence, ends up winning the Presidency of this great country. Then unfortunately, America will not be great again. Sadly, we will be far from it.