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The airline said such checks are 'required by law' but apologized, admitting the situation 'could have been handled better'
A 12-year-old girl and her family are searching for answers after Air Canada employees forced her to remove her hijab while waiting to board a flight at San Francisco International Airport.
Fatima Abdelrahman was travelling from California to Toronto on Aug. 1 with fellow players and her coach on the U.S. Squash team to play in an international tournament against Canadian opponents.
After passing through security and having her passport and boarding passes checked, she waited at the gate to enter the aircraft. As her group began walking onto the plane, an Air Canada agent approached Fatima, demanding she take off her headscarf.
“The agent pulled me aside and said, ‘you’re going to need to take your scarf off’ and I said, ‘I can’t’ and he said, ‘no, you need to,’ ” Fatima said. “I knew I had done absolutely nothing wrong.”
Two other Air Canada employees then approached Fatima, reiterating she must remove the head covering because she wasn’t wearing one in her passport photo.
Eventually a female employee escorted Fatima to a corner in a tunnel where passengers enter the plane and had her remove the headscarf.
“It makes me feel really angry,” she said. “I was humiliated.”
While it was happening, Fatima was messaging her family.
“She made me take it off for a sec and then was like ok,” read a text from Fatima to her family. She added that the agent barely looked at what was on her head before letting her board the flight.
Fatima eventually found a seat on the plane, but never saw her teammates and coach until they landed.
It was the 12-year-old’s first time travelling internationally without her family.
. @AirCanada pls explain why you pulled aside my 12yr old sister for flight 758 making her take off her hijab AT THE GATE?? AFTER she already passed security??— Sabreen Abdelrahman (@Sabreen_magdy) August 1, 2019
Thx for ruining her experience as the first U.S. National Team Squash player in Hijab + her first time traveling alone
Fatima’s mother replied to the urgent texts, telling her to stay calm, while her older sister Sabreen was enraged.
“My mom was shaking because she was already worried about her travelling alone, my dad and I were shocked and angry,” Sabreen said. “How is this happening to my baby sister?”
Sabreen took to Twitter to confront Air Canada about the incident.
Air Canada replied to the tweet asking for more information while also mistakenly referring to Fatima as Sabreen’s daughter.
The National Post reached out to Air Canada for five consecutive days and did not receive a response.
Emails between the airline and Sabreen forwarded to the National Post indicate that Air Canada apologized but justified the move by employees.
“We recognize you and your sister’s disappointment with the identification check that was done for her travel to Canada. Air Canada must comply with Canadian laws and regulations, which require us to compare a passenger’s entire face with the photograph shown on the travel document used prior to boarding the aircraft,” an Air Canada spokesperson wrote to the family.
“Should one of our passengers wear religious or cultural head wear, as many do, we recognize the importance of respecting their right to privacy and any necessary identification check is to be done discretely and in a private area.”
Magdy, Fatima’s father, wrote back to Air Canada after being “disturbed” by the response.
“Fatima just returned back yesterday and was not asked to remove her scarf at Pearson Airport, so Air Canada either broke the Canadian law yesterday or was racist on Thursday, which one is it?” read Magdy’s email.
He added that other people in the airport were wearing sunglasses and hats that cover their faces, but were not pulled aside, which he wrote, “clearly illustrates that the agent was targeting Fatima as a Muslim.”
The Canadian Air Transport Security Authority (CATSA) was not involved in the incident, but says passengers may keep their head coverings on during the screening process. They may require additional screening if they set off a metal detector.
“CATSA knows that there can be sensitive situations when screening head coverings worn for religious or medical reasons. Screening Officers are trained to recognize these situations and ensure that passengers are treated with discretion and sensitivity,” a spokesperson wrote.
“If a physical search is required, it may be conducted in a private search room at the passenger’s request.”
Gábor Lukács, the founder and coordinator of Air Passenger Rights says he doesn’t believe the airline was allowed to force Fatima to remove her hijab and calls the incident a “significant failure in training.”
“Do they think a 12-year-old kid is going to be a threat in the flight? This was a power trip. You have their U.S. passport, the coach, their mates — just use your head,” he said.
“What makes it so serious is the aspect that it involves, smells and feels like racism … targeting them because of what they look like or their religion.”
He added that if the airline thought she was a threat, they should have contacted police or security.
“They are nothing more than your bus driver, not a state actor who can punish you and tell you how to be good or bad,” Lukács said.
“Imagine you were on a bus and the driver tells you you can’t get on the bus unless you took off your religious headwear. That’s fundamentally wrong.”
Magdy also urged Air Canada to make a donation to the children of a couple gunned down during the terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas that ended 22 lives. Investigators are considering the mass shooting as a hate crime towards Hispanic immigrants.
“I obviously am not directly blaming Air Canada for that tragedy, but what your agent did at SFO (San Francisco International Airport) is a seed for hate-spreading that needs to be stopped at all levels,” Magdy wrote.
Air Canada apologized.
“On behalf of Air Canada, I would like to apologize for letting you down and leaving you disappointed after boarding your flight at the airport in San Francisco,” a spokesperson wrote to Magdy.
“I agree that this could have been handled better and I want to personally assure you that we are using your feedback to ensure improvements are made.”
Sabreen adds that the airline said it would consider donating to the children who lost their parents during the terrorist attack in El Paso.
Fatima didn’t let the incident throw her off — she won her squash tournament and hopes it will be one of many.
She says she doesn’t plan on using Air Canada again and it’s unclear if U.S. Squash will continue using Air Canada — the organization did not respond to the National Post’s request for comment.
But Fatima says she still likes Canada.
“I don’t think it’s changed my perspective of Canada itself,” she said. “There’s a lot of nice people there.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019