A UC Berkeley college senior, who came to the United States as an Iraqi refugee in 2002, was removed from a Los Angeles flight to Oakland after a fellow passenger overheard him speaking Arabic on his mobile phone.
Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, 26, was onboard a Southwest Airlines flight on April 6 when he called his uncle in Baghdad to tell him about a dinner he attended at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council where he delivered a speech.
“I was very excited about the event, so I called my uncle to tell him about it,” Makhzoomi told the New York Times.
Ending the call, he bade his uncle farewell by saying, “inshallah,” which translates to “if God is willing.”
He then noticed a female passenger looking at him suspiciously. She soon got up and reported him to the crew for making “potentially threatening comments,” according to the airline.
An Arabic-speaking airline employee escorted him off the plane just a few minutes after his call ended.
During the questioning that followed, Makhzoomi felt scared and felt that the employee spoke to him like he was “an animal.”
“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,” Makhzoomi recalled saying when he was asked why he was speaking Arabic on the plane..
Makhzoomi was then brought to a private room for more questioning, this time by three FBI agents who were called by airport security. He was told that the employee took offense with his insinuation of anti-Muslim bias.
The agents asked Makhzoomi questions about his family, particularly his father, Khalid Makhzoom, an Iraqi diplomat who was sent to prison and later killed by the Saddam Hussein regime.
The FBI later confirmed that Makhzoomi posed no threat to the flight.
Makhzoomi has sought an apology from Southwest Airlines for the treatment he received on the plane.
“Human dignity is the most valuable thing in the world, not money,” he said. “If they apologized, maybe it would teach them to treat people equally.”
In a statement, Southwest airlines said, “We regret any less than positive experience a customer has onboard our aircraft. Southwest neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind.”