Somali-American professors angered over repeated airport searches

Posted on August 24, 2009

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MPR News
by Laura Yuen, Minnesota Public Radio
August 24, 2009

Minneapolis — Two Somali-American scholars at the University of Minnesota say they’re outraged by what they consider invasive questioning and searches while traveling abroad this summer.

Abdi Samatar chairs the U’s geography department. He’s married to Cawo Abdi, a sociology professor. Since June, the husband and wife say they’ve been pulled aside a total of six times at airports for lengthy interviews that have lasted up to two and a half hours.

They believe customs officials targeted them for being Muslim and ethnic Somalis.

Earlier this month, Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan — the “Brad Pitt of India” — made headlines around the globe when he was stopped at a New Jersey airport. Khan said, at the time, that he believed he was questioned because his Muslim name raised red flags in a post-Sept. 11 world.

But countless Somali-Americans who don’t enjoy Khan’s level of celebrity say they’ve been subjected to similar searches, called secondary inspections, upon re-entering the U.S.

“He went through every little thing that was in my wallet, one by one,” Abdi Samatar said, recalling the inspection of one customs officer.

Samatar, who sports a graying beard and bookish, gold-rimmed glasses, said he has counseled the U.S. State Department on Somali affairs and travels around the world for his research.

But he now believes he’s of interest to the government for other reasons. Since June, Samatar has gone through four secondary searches, which he described as demeaning and humiliating. U.S customs officers, sometimes acting apologetically, have rummaged through his personal diary, his toiletries, his kid’s diaper bag, and academic papers on Somali pirates.

One officer took a keen interest in the papers, Samatar said. The officer wanted to know why he was reading them.  [more]

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