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UC Berkeley student says he was taken off a Southwest flight at LAX for speaking Arabic

Khairuldeen Makhzoomi

Khairuldeen Makhzoomi, 26, a UC Berkeley student whose family fled Iraq in 2002, was taken off a Southwest Airlines flight April 6 at LAX after speaking to his uncle on the phone in Arabic.

(Courtesy of Khairuldeen Makhzoomi)

A UC Berkeley student who fled Iraq as a teenager said he was removed from a Southwest Airlines flight at LAX two weeks ago and questioned about why he was speaking in Arabic on his phone.

Before the plane took off, Khairuldeen Makhzoomi made a quick call to his uncle in Baghdad and told him about his experience at an event he had just attended in Los Angeles where United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon was speaking.

As Makhzoomi spoke to his uncle, a woman seated in the row ahead of him turned around to stare, he told The Times in an interview.

“This is weird,” he recalled thinking to himself.

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A moment later, he told his uncle he’d call him when he landed in Oakland and hung up, using the phrase “inshallah,” which means “if God is willing.”

The woman stood up and walked toward the front of the plane, Makhzoomi said. A couple of minutes later, Makhzoomi said, a Southwest employee walked over to him and told him he had to get off the plane. He was escorted to the gate, where police officers stood waiting.

An airline supervisor who Makhzoomi said spoke quick Arabic then asked the college student why he’d spoken in Arabic on a plane.

“I felt oppressed,” Makhzoomi said. “And I said, ‘You know, this is what Islamophobia looks like.’”

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Before long, more police showed up with a dog and searched him. Then FBI agents arrived.

“Be honest with us, you said something about martyrs,” he recalled one agent saying to him. “I said, ‘What are you talking about? I didn’t.’”

An FBI spokeswoman confirmed that agents responded to the airport April 6 but declined to detail what happened, saying no further action was taken by the agents.

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Makhzoomi, who said his family fled Iraq in 2002 for Jordan after his father, a diplomat, was killed by members of Saddam Hussein’s regime, said he’s still processing what happened to him. The main thing he wants, he said, is an apology from Southwest.

In a statement Sunday, the airline said its employees had acted within protocol in response to a passenger’s report of “potentially threatening comments,” adding that the company “neither condones nor tolerates discrimination of any kind.”

Brandy King, a spokeswoman for Southwest, said the airline has made several attempts to reach Makhzoomi since learning of his account in the Daily Californian, his school’s newspaper.

Makhzoomi, however, says he’s tried to contact the airline and spoke to one employee who said, “Your name is clear, you can travel with us.”

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“No apology,” said Makhzoomi, who plans to graduate this year with a dual degree in political science and Near Eastern languages and literature.

Zahra Billoo of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations condemned what happened to Makhzoomi and characterized it as “every Muslim’s nightmare when getting on a plane.”

What happened to Makhzoomi, she said, is especially concerning within its broader context.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations held a news conference Friday to call for an investigation after a Muslim woman from Maryland said she was removed from her flight – also on Southwest – without adequate explanation. But the problem, Billoo said, is widespread.

“It’s not just Southwest. It’s a problem with airlines and a problem with how law enforcement deals with allegedly suspicious Muslims,” she said. “We’re worried that it’s not being taken seriously.”

For more Los Angeles County news, follow @marisagerber

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