This is my account of a recent experience of unfairness and injustice that I faced at the hands of the US embassy, which, without notice or explanation, revoked my B-1/B-2 Business Visa. I would like to inform you so that you feel motivated to also share your story especially if you have faced the same at the hands of the US immigration. It is with this in my mind I have also launched a website called www.flyingwhilemuslim.org.uk to log all your travel troubles to and from the US.
On December 17, 2015, I was scheduled to travel from London to New York. I am an imam, and I had been invited to lead Friday prayers at one of the leading mosques in New York City.
During my trip, I was also planning to deliver several lectures and to see friends and family who live in America. I arrived at Heathrow airport in good time, scanned my boarding pass through the first departure gates, completed the hand luggage and body security checks and proceeded to the assigned gate for the Virgin Atlantic flight.
I queued up, and when it was my turn I handed over my passport for the final checks. At this stage my passport would normally flag up a further security alert and I would be taken to the side for another round of checks. I have learned to expect this for every flight to the US.
However, this time I was approach by a man who claimed to be from the US Embassy and wanted to talk to me. He took my passport, opened it, checked the US visa page and then asked me some frivolous questions. He tapped a few numbers on his blackberry and said to me: “I am afraid you cannot travel on this flight, your visa has been revoked.”
I asked him why and he said he was only a messenger. He had no answer and said I should contact the Embassy. However, he wanted to be 100% sure so he said he would make a few phone calls and be back. He left me on the side and proceeded to make the phone calls. He came back and said: “You cannot travel on this flight.”
I asked him why and he said: “You must have done something wrong.” Then he walked away with a smirk on his face. He was cold, calculated and unhelpful.
I felt insulted, humiliated and angry. I couldn’t understand why my valid Business Visa had been revoked and why I had not been informed about it before arriving at the airport? Why prevent me from boarding a plane and give me no reason? This was extremely disturbing.
While I stood there visibly shaken, I witnessed the same man stop only Muslim looking passengers and interrogate them. The messenger had turned into an interrogator.
In the mean time I made a phone call to the US Embassy to speak to a contact I had spoken to before, regarding the Global Traveler Program. At the suggestion of US Embassy staff, I had applied to the program to make my travel to the US easier.
The Embassy staff told me that the matter would be further explored and someone would be in touch with me.
A Virgin Atlantic staff member came over to me and apologised for the inconvenience, saying it was not the airline’s decision. They have no say over these matters and they were not amused by what was going on, but they would be happy to show me the way to the exit gates. The airline staff looked unhappy at the behaviour of the US Embassy staff.
I left the airport extremely upset.
I immediately made this information public through Facebook and Twitter. I was contacted by BBC London Radio to talk about it, as they were closely tracking US behaviour towards Muslim visitors. This was followed by a TV interview for the BBC London News the next day. At this stage, all I wanted was to hear from the Embassy.
I received a phone call from someone by the name of Geoff from the US Embassy on December 18, around midday, requesting me to go to the Embassy. He suggested that we should talk and sort things out. He even said we should be able to fix things. I accepted his invitation to attend two days later.
When I arrived at the Embassy on Monday December 21 at 10am, a man ushered me in and took me to a room in the basement. Two more men were waiting for me in the room. They all sat down behind a table and I sat down on a revolving chair.
They told me that this was my turn to tell them my side of the story. Perhaps I could tell them the reasons why I think my visa could have been revoked. That was astonishing to me! I was invited by the Embassy to put things right, yet I was being accused of something that was not being made clear and I was expected to say things.
What “things”? I was unaware of any reason why my visa could have been revoked.
I was sharp with my words and told the officers what I thought of their attitude. I have done nothing wrong. I have never been found guilty in any court in any part of the world. I have never been involved in any extremist activities, and in fact I am living with a death threat from an extremist group for speaking out against extremism. I have remained the same all my life, with my views and my practice of Islam – always balanced, moderate and calling for inner and outer peace.
I told them that I found their method totally unacceptable. Surely if they had decided to revoke my visa they would have done that long ago. Why leave it until the last minute? Why humiliate me at the airport? Why not inform me in advance so I could have cancelled my trip and my hosts in the US could have made alternative arrangements?
I asked them what information they had about the reasons behind the revocation of my visa. They did not give me any clear answer apart from asking: “Do you know a man by the name of ‘X’?” They pronounced the name very badly so I asked them to spell it for me. I replied that I did not know a man by that name; I do not have any friends by that name, nor any relatives. However, it is possible this person’s name appears on my Facebook friends, followers and fans list. As a public figure, I have over 27,000 people following my social media feeds.
I told them that unless they had something clearly showing what I had done wrong, this was making no sense. I did not do anything wrong. I have never called for anything violent or against the law. Whoever this person is had nothing to do with me. They need to provide proof of any connection and wrongdoing.
They told me that they would do further investigations and might or might not come back to me. The only way I could find out whether I can travel to the US was by making a fresh application for a visa.
I told the officers that I was not that desperate to go to the US. Since they revoked my visa, let them explain why they have done this and then I may re-consider my options. In fact, the US Embassy should give me a clear answer with reasons why my visa was revoked. I did tell them that an apology and compensation for my pain and loss would be the most civilized thing for them to do.
I asked the officers their names, but they refused to give them to me. I asked the officers to give me some idea about whom I should contact and they refused to do that too. I asked the officers what was the purpose of this meeting and they said: “It was to hear your side of the story, anything more than that is above our pay grade.”
I left the room feeling my time was wasted. I was not any clearer or wiser about why they had revoked my visa nor what course of action I should pursue from this point on.
I believe this was a grave injustice on me and must be put right. I also believe many others are affected by this policy and it must be changed. I would like to request you to not suffer in silence. We should stand together against all type of prejudice.
If you have been stopped at the airport by US officials, refused to board flight to the US, please email us your experiences to firstname.lastname@example.org
Ajmal Masroor, Imam and Chief Communications Officer, Alchemiya Media Limited