The harsh reality of being Middle Eastern in an American airport

After cancelled and changed flights, chaotic sprints around my house, and an hour of standstill traffic, I arrived at the Pittsburgh International Airport this past Sunday with almost two hours to spare. I knew it was one of the busiest travel days of the year. I dropped my bag off at the ticket counter and headed toward security. Even after deciding to go to the alternative checkpoint, the line was still incredibly long. I was kicking myself for, yet again, forgetting to finish my TSA Pre-Check application. Once I finally approached the officer who was checking boarding passes and identification, a very familiar process began to take place.
The officer smiled and kindly asked where I was traveling that day and checked my license with the name on the boarding pass. The next thing out of his mouth was “Elias? Is that Middle Eastern?” Already prepared for what was coming next, I nodded my head and briefly stated that it was. I continued through the standard security measures and I was told that I was selected “randomly” for additional screening procedures. My bags were then extensively searched, a security wand was waved all over my body more than once, and I was physically patted down twice. Throughout this time, I was asked extensive questions about myself, my family, my hometown, where I was flying to and why. After about an additional half hour and not one identified problem, I was then permitted to proceed to my gate.
I am much too familiar with these excessive security measures in airports. When someone looks at me, I can guarantee that it would not even cross their mind that I was part Middle Eastern, in fact Syrian. But, when I am at an airport and TSA officers see my last name, I feel like it is a completely different situation. It is hard for me to believe that almost every time I go through security, I am that special person who is “randomly” selected for additional screening.
In a society so abuzz with discussions of racial prejudices, and with the conflicts in the Middle East standing in the spotlight of the global media, it was alarming just how passive and accepting I was of my blatant racial classification. It is both disturbing and frightening that we live in a society that often determines the safety of situations based on judgments and stereotypes.
I was just a grumpy college student begrudgingly trying to return to school after a pleasant break; I had no intentions of initiating the slightest conflict with airport security. Such a similar tale can be told for a multitude of Americans with backgrounds like my own, in a variety of situations. Racial profiling is as big a problem as it ever has been, and despite so many strides in the right direction, it feels like we continue to take two steps forward and one back. While society has generally acknowledged and accepted that the problem exists, when will action be taken to change societal behaviors? Though the consequence of my incident was merely a delay in arrival at my gate, so many individuals have had to endure the life-changing repercussions of prejudice. I sincerely hope that in my lifetime we will see a turnaround in how this issue is addressed, and that myself and like individuals will be able to make it through airport security unscathed. ​
-MAE

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