A University of California, Berkeley, student who came to the U.S. as an Iraqi refugee says he was unfairly removed from a flight at Los Angeles International Airport earlier this month because a fellow passenger was alarmed by an innocent conversation he was having in Arabic.
Southwest Airlines said in a statement Sunday that the passenger, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, was taken off the April 9 flight from Los Angeles to Oakland, California, for questioning and the plane took off while that was happening. But the airline said it has not received a direct complaint from Makhzoomi, and he has not responded to several attempts to reach him.
Makhzoomi, a 26-year-old senior at UC Berkeley, said that he was calling his uncle before the flight to tell him about a speech he had attended by United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
"I was very excited about the event, so I called my uncle to tell him about it," Makhzoomi told the New York Times.
Makhzoomi told his uncle about asking a question on the Islamic State group at the event. He said he used the phrase "inshallah," meaning "god willing," at the end of the conversation, and those things might have led to suspicion.
He said the woman sitting in front of him on the plane began staring at him. "That is when I thought, 'Oh, I hope she is not reporting me,'" Makhzoomi said.
Makhzoomi said an Arabic-speaking Southwest employee came and escorted him off the plane and asked him why he had been speaking Arabic. Makhzoomi said he told the employee "This is what Islamophobia got this country into." Makhzoomi said that made the man angry and that was when he was told he could not get back on the plane.
The FBI in Los Angeles said in a statement that it investigated the situation by request and found no further action was necessary.
Southwest said it could not offer specific comments before talking to Makhzoomi. The airline's statement said it regrets any less-than-positive experience by a customer, but its primary focus is on safety and its crew members followed protocol. It added that the company "neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind."
Makhzoomi said he was able to book a flight on another airline and got home eight hours later than planned.
"My family and I have been through a lot, and this is just another one of the experiences I have had," he 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."
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