I have to apologise for the slightly inaccurate clickbait. Donald Trump hadn’t won the election yet, but American Customs decided to make life hard for me anyway.
Imagine, if you will, an entire floor of the Vancouver airport departure terminal designated to the US Customs and Border Protection. Officers, mostly men, walking around as if they run the world. Chests puffed out, long slow strides, stern solemn faces.
I’m travelling Air Canada from Sydney to New York , and all the customs and immigration checks are being done in Canada.
Excuse the pun, but I didn’t get off to a flying start.
“Sir, can you come with me please?”
Oh man, here we go.
“Right this way”
They take my passport, do a whole bunch of fingerprinting, and decide to pull me aside. I’ve only got 45 minutes until my next flight, so I’m feeling the pressure.
“Just take a seat here please, and we’ll call you when we’re ready”
An hour passes. I’ve well and truly missed my flight, and I’m left to stew in a unique brand of travel anxiety that few have the pleasure of experiencing.
“Sir? I’m just going to ask you a few questions”.
What followed can best be described as a light interrogation. Height, weight, build, occupation, purpose of travel, mother’s name, father’s name, and their places of birth. He demands all of this and more without explanation, and simply leaves me in the dark.
“Thanks, take a seat”
And off he goes. I spend the next hour wondering why I’d led myself to believe that I’d be able to travel to America without any hassle, and whether it’s even worth the trouble. I’m exasperated. I’m frustrated. I’m genuinely worried, and I’m trying not to freak out. I see him walk past and finally pipe up the courage to say something.
I ask him what on earth is going on.
“We gotta check you, it takes time. Your name just sounds like them other names”
Note to self, don’t look or sound like anyone that they don’t like. Forget the $500 official VISA vetting process, I’d have better luck changing my name to James Smith.
“Here you go, sir”
Thankfully, it all ends well. Just over 2 hours later, I have my passport back and I’m free to go. Air Canada puts me on a flight 12 hours later, so I spend the day in the city eating at Tim Hortons and napping in the park.
Set backs and all, I was lucky to be in the situation I was. As I munched on a maple dip donut, I reminded myself to be grateful that I was in the financial and political position to travel in the first place. I wasn’t living in Syria and being bombed by both fellow countrymen and far away nations, and I wasn’t in Sub-Saharan Africa dying of Malaria. I was in a major Canadian city, a little sleep deprived, but able to experience some of the purest joys and freedoms that life has to offer.
But it was intense, and incredibly confronting.
I will always feel nervous going through airport security and customs, even though I have literally never had a brush with the law. Being black and having a Muslim name simply doesn’t work in my favour. Admittedly, the US seems to be particularly blatant when it comes to suspicion of other races and backgrounds.
Maybe their approach to law enforcement and border security is just a little oversimplified.
It’s important for me to acknowledge that I’ve only seen a very tiny snapshot of what the United States can be like. I know that there are those of you in America who are kind, compassionate, supportive and welcoming, but it’s a shame that there aren’t enough of you to drown out the wall of malice and hatred that seems to be radiating from the US right now. Given enough time, I’m sure I’ll be able to head back to the States to enjoy all the positive progress that they’ll have made.
Unless Trump decides to ban all Nigerian/Australian dual nationals from travelling into the country.
At this point, who the hell knows.