Patting Down the Usual Suspects

Syrian travellers to the US are becoming sick and tired of security checks based solely on their passport.

When news of the failed Christmas Day US plane bombing by Nigerian national Umar Farouk Abdul Mutallab hit the press, Kinan Azmeh, a Syrian music student who regularly travels between Damascus and New York, braced himself for more tedious airport security procedures.

He did not have to wait long. Nine days later the US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) issued a new security directive to all US and international air carriers with inbound flights to the US, imposing additional airport security measures on travellers from Syria and 13 other “terror-linked” countries. The measures include full-body screenings, pat-downs and hand luggage searches and follow years of additional screenings for passengers travelling on Middle Eastern passports.

“TSA is mandating that every individual flying into the US from anywhere in the world who holds a passport issued by or is travelling from or through nations that are state sponsors of terrorism or other countries of interest will be required to go through enhanced screening,” the TSA website states, adding that the procedures are long-term.

All of which means Syrians like Azmeh, a clarinetist and doctoral music student at the City University of New York, can expect to spend even longer checking in at international airports.

“Since 9/11 I have been escorted to a separate room every time I have travelled to the US,” Azmeh said. “After travelling for 12 hours from Syria, I have then had to wait for around five more hours until questioned by an officer. When I heard the news about the latest security incident, I was worried. What more will happen?”

Azmeh has spent so much time waiting to undergo additional airport checks during his travels to and from the US that he has even composed a song about them, aptly entitled Airports.

“It took me a while to be able to relax while waiting at the airport,” he said. “You get frustrated and angry, so I decided to let my anger out through music.”

Not going back

Others, such as Dulama Salem, a businessman with offices in both Damascus and Dubai, found their US airport experience so frustrating they have simply decided not to return.

“It’s so humiliating to watch all the other passengers heading outside while you are taken into a separate room and left there waiting for hours not knowing when you’ll be released as if you were some criminal.” Salem, who even shaved his beard before travelling to the US for fear of being stereotyped as a fundamentalist, said. “I only went to the US for five days on a business trip, yet I was questioned at the airport upon arrival and had to visit the homeland security department before leaving to give a report of my visit. They even called my secretary in Dubai to double check whether I was really on a business trip.”

Azmeh said the constant checks simply reflect the global climate of fear. He finds it strange, however, that US security checks are based on the type of passport you hold.

“I understand how people react to fear; it only takes a little bit of fear and you start pointing at everyone who has a beard,” he said. “But what I don’t understand is how people can discriminate according to passports.”

It’s a point Rania Salti, a secretary at a Damascus-based company, also stresses.

“When you travel to Europe, you are thoroughly checked,” she said. “They ask you to take off your jacket and sometimes even your shoes and your belt, but it feels ok because they do it to everyone. You don’t feel discriminated against just because you are holding a Syrian passport.”

Fear of Islam

The move by US authorities to subject Syrian passport holders to enhanced security checks saw the Ministry of Foreign Affairs summon Washington’s highest-ranking diplomat in the country to protest the “unfriendly” procedures.

“We demand the US revise these procedures which harm Syrian citizens and we would like to make it clear that Syria will find itself forced to implement similar procedures if the US insists on continuing to impose them,” Syria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement published by the country’s state-run news agency SANA.

At the time of publication, it was unclear if Syria had moved to implement similar procedures against US passport holders entering the country.

Syrian travellers also complain of increasingly complicated and lengthy visa application processes which often involve them queuing in front of embassies for several hours. Many relate their growing travel difficulties to what they perceive as growing Islamophobia in the West.

“There has been a growing Islamophobia in the West since 9/11,” Salti said. “Ironically, visa problems and airport security screenings are the symptoms of this mutual mistrust which could actually be best overcome by allowing more people to travel and getting to know each other.”

This article was published in Syria Today magazine.

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