California College Student Removed From Southwest Airlines Flight After Speaking Arabic

Southwest Airlines Finds Five Planes In Its 737 Fleet In Need Of Repair
Southwest has removed two Muslim passengers from flights in the past few weeks. Photo: Kevork Djansezian/2011 Getty Images

The Daily Californian reports that two weeks ago, a University of California, Berkeley, senior was removed from a Southwest Airlines plane after he was heard speaking Arabic before his flight from Los Angeles to Oakland. Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, a 26-year-old Iraqi refugee, was removed from the April 6 flight, detained, and later interrogated by the FBI. Apparently, the plane’s flight crew had decided to investigate “potentially threatening comments” made by Makhzoomi while he was on the aircraft, as overheard by another passenger.

According to Makhzoomi, he had in fact been speaking to his uncle in Arabic about a dinner he had attended the night before at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council with UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and upon ending the call with a customary “inshallah,” noticed that a passenger was looking at him suspiciously. That passenger left her seat after Makhzoomi made eye contact with her and a Southwest employee soon arrived to take Makhzoomi off the plane. He would later find out that the other passenger had thought she’d heard him say “shahid,” which means martyr, and decided to report him.

Makhzoomi says the employee who removed him treated him like he was “an animal” and became enraged when Makhzoomi accused him of Islamophobia. He was then told he could not return to the flight, and was escorted to another area of the terminal where security personnel, a police dog, and Southwest employees soon amassed:

[S]ecurity officers searched his bag again and continued to ask him if he had any other luggage he was keeping secret. Makhzoomi alleged that one police officer publicly searched his genital area and asked him if he was hiding a knife anywhere.

That is when I couldn’t handle it and my eyes began to water,” he said. “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. 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.”

The New York Times notes that Makhzoomi’s father was a former Iraqi diplomat who was jailed in Abu Ghraib prison by Saddam Hussein and later killed by the regime. The Daily Californian adds that Makhzoomi is also pursuing public service, and that since he arrived from Jordan as a refugee to the U.S. in 2010, “Makhzoomi has worked at a Cheesecake Factory, built a school in a Syrian refugee camp in Jordan, worked his way through community college, transferred to UC Berkeley, where he is part of Model United Nations and the Berkeley Political Review and currently writes for the Huffington Post.”

The FBI eventually arrived at the airport and interrogated Makhzoomi in a private room about his phone call and his family, before ultimately deciding he was not a threat. When he was released, the same Southwest employee who had removed him told him he could not fly with the airline and refunded his ticket. He later caught a Delta flight home. 

Makhzoomi says he has considered suing the airline, but decided he just wants an apology.

The Times reports that Southwest Airlines said in a statement that they would not discuss the behavior of any one specific employee but that they “regret any less than positive experience a customer has onboard our aircraft.” According to the Daily Californian, they also insisted that they “wouldn’t remove passengers from flights without a collaborative decision rooted in established procedures.” Another Muslim passenger was taken off a Southwest flight last week in Chicago.