Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, whom the Daily Californian reports is a 26-year-old Berkeley student in his senior year, had just boarded Southwest flight 4260 from Los Angeles to Oakland on April 6, planning to return to campus after attending a dinner at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
To discuss the event, he called his uncle in Baghdad, talking in Arabic and bidding him a traditional goodbye — “inshallah,” which translates to "god willing." Then, when he looked around the plane, Makhzoomi saw a woman looking at him fearfully. She quickly left her seat.
Makhzoomi, an Iraqi refugee, fled with his family to Jordan in 2002 after his father, a diplomat in Iraq, was killed under Saddam Hussein's regime. Makhzoomi, his mother, and his younger brother, were eventually granted asylum to the United States, where they have lived since 2010. Currently the family resides in Oakland. Incidentally, Makhzoomi is a member of Southwest's loyal premier rewards program.
Something in the woman's gaze troubled Makhzoomi. “She kept staring at me and I didn’t know what was wrong,” he said. “Then I realized what was happening and I just was thinking ‘I hope she’s not reporting me.’”
She was, and she did, and Makhzoomi was eventually removed from the flight, an insult and inconvenience for which he has not received an apology and which LAist reported on over the weekend.
Makhzoomi's story has travelled quickly across social media, making its way to the New York Times and other national outlets as an example of the current American rash of Islamophobia and xenophobia.
"Why were you speaking Arabic in the plane?” an airline employee of Middle Eastern or South Asian descent who introduced himself in arabic asked Makhzoomi after escorting him from the plane. The man spoke to Makhzoomi "like an animal," Makhzoomi said. “I said to him, ‘This is what Islamophobia got this country into,’ and that made him so angry. That is when he told me I could not go back on the plane.”
Not just that, but the employee contacted the FBI. “At that moment I couldn’t feel anything,” Makhzoomi told the Daily Cal. “I was so afraid. I was so scared.” Dogs searched the 26-year-old as onlookers watched."The way they searched me and the dogs, the officers, people were watching me and the humiliation made me so afraid because it brought all of these memories back to me," Makhzoomi told his school paper. "I escaped Iraq because of the war, because of Saddam and what he did to my father. When I got home, I just slept for a few days.”
At the airport, Makhzoomi was questioned by the FBI. What did he know about terrorism? Was he carrying a knife (they searched, he says, his genitals for one). Had he smuggled any secret bags aboard the flight.
Makhzoomi collected a refund for the flight, and eventually caught another plane, from Delta Airlines, to Oakland, arriving eight hours later than he had initially planned.
Zahra Billoo, who serves as executive director of the San Francisco Bay Area office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, tells the Times the incident is one of seven such cases of Muslims being pulled from flights so far this year. “We are concerned that Muslims are facing more and more scrutiny and baseless harassment when they are attempting to travel,” Billoo said.
“We regret any less than positive experience a customer has onboard our aircraft,” Southwest said in a statement. “Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind.”
“My family and I have been through a lot and this is just another one of the experiences I have had,” Makhzoomi told the Times. “Human dignity is the most valuable thing in the world, not money. If they apologized, maybe it would teach them to treat people equally.”