On April 6, 2016, Muslim Iraqi refugee Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a student the University of California, Berkeley and a Huffington Post blogger, was thrown off a Southwest Airlines flight at Los Angeles International Airport for speaking his native language of Arabic.
A passenger eavesdropping on Khairuldeen’s phone conversation with his uncle before takeoff reported him because she thought he said the word “shahid,” one translation of which is “martyr.” As a non-native Arabic speaker, she had misunderstood. Khairuldeen had spoken the word “Inshallah,” meaning “God willing.” This is one of the most common expressions in the Middle East.
Although other Middle Easterners have been kicked off of US flights for speaking Arabic, his traumatizing case was the most highly publicized and became a major news story in the U.S. for several days. Now, one year later, I’ve spoken to Khairuldeen about the incident and what he’s doing today.
Khairuldeen’s case occurred in large part because of the world’s negative image of Arabs. “I believe fear was the main factor for what happened to me and others. And of course education and lack of knowledge.”
The media heavily focused on his religion as the cause of his removal from the flight. But “it would be the same reaction if it was a Christian Arab,” Khairuldeen says. “The problem was my language, because I spoke Arabic, which they referred to as a ‘Jihadist language.’”
Many people don’t realize that Arabic is not only the language of Middle Eastern Muslims but also the region’s Christians. The world’s lack of knowledge regarding Middle Eastern languages, cultures and religions causes a great deal of fear and misunderstandings. We don’t seem to be improving much in this regard, in the US at least. But Khairuldeen, although he is originally from the Middle East, is working on better understanding the region – by learning Hebrew.
He has been studying the language for the past five months in Amman, Jordan. “I decided to learn Hebrew because I’m interested in conducting research in Israel about democratic reforms,” Khairuldeen says. “I’m hoping to conduct my research next summer 2018 in Tel Aviv.”
“I found that Hebrew is an easy language and similar to Arabic. Learning Hebrew will also help me to understand Israeli society and culture.”
While in Jordan, Khairuldeen also researched Iraqi national reconciliation and recent developments in the region, particularly regarding the topic of post-ISIS Iraq.
“I think the US is doing a good job so far in the battle against the Islamic State. I think they are sending messages to the people of Iraq on many different levels. The cooperation between the two countries is great, and I hope it will continue to be that way after the defeat of ISIS.”
While Khairuldeen is satisfied with his adopted country’s stance on his native land, he is not happy with the US position on refugees. “I do not support it. I wish the US administration would give those refugees an opportunity to carry on with their lives as they did me in the past. At least accept a number of refugees; they will only contribute to the success of our nation [to show] that we are always united in time of adversity. To open your doors for those refugees is simply what Jesus would do.”
Perhaps people are still being kicked off flights in the US because they are speaking Arabic, but the media is no longer reporting on it. This should never happen in the future, but if it does, “the least they can do,” Khairuldeen says of the people reacting to such incidents, “is to treat everybody with respect and preserve the individual’s dignity, whoever he/she may be.”
Khairuldeen has successfully put the incident with Southwest Airlines behind him. “I try to ignore what happened to me and try to really focus on my life and my education for now.” He will be continuing his education, majoring in Contemporary Arab Studies, at Georgetown University this autumn.
“I have made it here in America,” Khairuldeen says, “and I strongly believe that other refugees can do the same.”
By: Connect the Cultures founder Sabina Lohr