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A family trip to Turkey would have been normal for the Syrian-born mayor of Prospect Park, Mohamed Khairullah, except his scheduled July 3, 2019, departure was missed due to what he says were hours of harassment and security procedures. He, his wife, and children got another flight the following day, after five hours, and on their return to the US, Customs and Border Patrol, the mayor asserted, sought him out for extensive, unreasonable questioning.
TAPinto Hawthorne covered the mayor’s complaints about the incident on social media in August, and North Jersey picked up the story again, releasing an article on September 13 that prompted the mayor to call a press conference that afternoon.
“We wanted to visit our families in Turkey and obviously there almost four million Syrians in Turkey due to the crisis in Syria,” Khairullah said. “We just wanted to go and have a good time and join our families. I met there with elected officials as well to learn from their experience as I believe that they do a wonderful job making sure their cities are beautiful.”
The mayor has something of an international presence, given his humanitarian missions to the middle east, to Tunisia to speak about democracy and municipal administration, and, further afield, to Bangladesh to try to help with the crisis of the Rohingya people, a predominantly Muslim, stateless people facing extensive persecution in south Asia. At his 2019 inauguration, Governor Phil Murphy and Turkish Consul-General Alper Aktaş were present: a sign of the broad recognition the mayor of Passaic County’s smallest town carries.
“During our walk to the room where I was interviewed,” Khairullah said, “the agent was making light of the situation saying, ‘You know, this way you get past the long lines and it’ll be a few minutes’ which turned into three hours. At that point I had an infant, a toddler, a 9 year old, and a 10 year old, along with my wife who were held up there. He took me in and started asking me questions, starting with my name, where I worked, which I thought were routine questions even though he had the passport. He continued to ask questions including what did I go to Turkey for, who did I meet, and the line of questioning went to where he started asking me if I knew of any terrorist cells in Turkey, to which I said no.”
The mayor was in contact with two lawyers from the Council of American Islamic Relations New York. “I believe that [the agent] went beyond what he was supposed to ask, which is where did you go, why did you go, and my basic information. Asking me about my educational background, my employment, and who I met with in Turkey, I believe was out of line. Asking me if I knew any terrorists was flat out profiling as far as I’m concerned and I ended up telling them that I needed to end the discussion.”
The CBP agents asked to “glance through” the mayor’s cell phones, which he agreed to, but after a period of “thirty to forty five minutes” he said he had enough. The authorities, however, said they had to hold onto them. He said that the cell phones were returned twelve days later.
Khairullah showed the boarding pass of his 14 month old child who had received a boarding pass marked SSSS, or “Secondary Security Screening Selection”, and thus was also searched.
Prior to his departure, the mayor said that after their rescheduled flight was made and the day came, they were again subjected to problems, including an unusual, second search on board the aircraft. “We were on line for almost five hours between the TSA having to rebook our flights, and having to go through the extensive pat, which was only the first level of pat downs. As we entered the plane there was a second search of all of us as well. As a person who travels a lot I know that is not a normal procedure.”
Khairullah was angered by the ordeal, and criticized the CPB for their handling of the situation. “The constitution is not blurry at the border for US citizens. They need to respect the constitution, our privacy, and as a whole. If there’s something against anyone, not just me, Arabs, Muslims, they need to be very clear about it. We need to be able to clear our names. I don’t know why this happened. I traveled twice during the month of May on fundraising trips to Michigan and California, I had no issues. I don’t know if this is a result of me raising funds for people in need in Syria, but if they have a problem with that, they need to be forthcoming about it. We’re working through legitimate organizations, and if there are issues, we need to be aware of it, not targeted at the airports when we’re trying to enjoy ourselves.”
Many Syrian families have been affected by the ongoing Syrian Civil War, where millions have fled to neighboring Turkey. Khairullah said that his wife, who is not yet a US citizen, is afraid to leave the country and is not sure if she’ll be able to see her relatives again. “But even with US citizenship,” Khairullah said, “even with the thirteen plus years as mayor, being a volunteer firefighter three years after I came to the US, all these hours of community service obviously doesn’t matter when my name is ‘Mohamed Khairullah’.”