A 12-year-old girl and her family are seeking answers after Air Canada staff forced her to remove the hijab as they waited for a flight to San Francisco International Airport.
Fatima Abdelman traveled from California to Toronto on August 1 with her fellow players and her coach in the United States squash team to play in an international tournament against Canadian opponents.
After going through security and checking passports and pensions, she waited at the gate to get on the plane. As her group began walking toward the plane, an Air Canada agent approached Fatima, demanding she take off her headscarf.
"The agent pulled me aside and said, '' You should take off your headscarf 'and I said,' I can't 'and he said,' no, you should '," Fatima said. "I knew I had done absolutely nothing wrong."
Two other Air Canada employees then approached Fatima, reiterating that she had to remove her head cover because she was not dressed in her passport photo.
Eventually, an employed woman escorted Fatima to the corner of the tunnel where passengers boarded the plane and forced her to remove the scarf.
"It makes me feel really angry," she said. "I was humiliated."
While this was happening, Fatima was ordering her family.
"She made me come downstairs and then she was fine," read a text from Fatima to the family. She added that the agent could barely see what was on her head before allowing her to board the flight.
What makes it so serious is the aspect that includes, smells and feels like racism
Fatima eventually found a seat on the plane, but never saw her teammates and coach until they landed.
It was a 12-year-old girl traveling for the first time internationally without her family.
Fatima's mother responded to emergency texts, telling her to remain calm while her older sister, Sabrin, became angry.
"My mom was shaking because she was already worried about traveling alone, my dad and I were shocked and angry," Sabrin said. "How's this with my baby sister?"
Sabrin took to Twitter to face Air Canada over the incident.
Air Canada responded to the tweet, demanding more information and also mistaken Fatima as Sabrin's daughter.
The National Post Office reached Air Canada five days in a row and received no response.
E-mails between the airline and Sabrin sent to the National Post suggest that Air Canada has apologized but justified the move.
"We recognize the disappointment of you and your sister in the identification check that was made for her trip to Canada. Air Canada must comply with Canadian laws and regulations, which require us to compare the entire face of the passenger with the photograph shown on the travel document used before boarding the aircraft, "the Air Canada family spokesman wrote.
"If any of our passengers wear religious or cultural clothing, as do many, we recognize the importance of respecting their right to privacy and any necessary identification checks should be conducted discreetly and privately."
But Fatima's face was fully visible and despite her pleas, she was not taken to a private area.
Magima, Fatima's father, returned to Air Canada after being "upset" by the response.
"Fatima had just returned yesterday and was not asked to remove the scarf at Pearson Airport, so Air Canada either violated Canadian law yesterday or was racist on Thursday, who is it?" Medi's email said.
He added that other people at the airport were wearing sunglasses and hats covering their faces but were not sidelined, which he wrote "clearly shows the agent was attacking Fatima as a Muslim".
The Canadian Air Traffic Safety Authority (KATSA) was not involved in the incident, but said passengers may have their heads held up during the screening process. An additional scan may be required if a metal detector is installed.
"KATSA knows there may be sensitive situations when screening for head coverings that are worn for religious or medical reasons. Screening officers are trained to recognize these situations and ensure that passengers are treated with discretion and sensitivity, ”the spokesman wrote.
"If a physical search is required, it can be conducted in a private search room at the passenger's request."
Gabor Lukasz, founder and co-ordinator of air travel rights, says he does not believe the airline was allowed to force Fatima to remove the hijab and called the incident "a significant failure in training".
"Do they think a 12-year-old child would be a flight threat? This was a journey of energy. You have an American passport, a coach, their friends – just use your head, "he said.
"What makes it so serious is the aspect that includes, smells and feels like racism … directing them because of what they look like or their religion."
He added that if the airline considered it 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," Lukacs said.
"Imagine you were on a bus, and the driver tells you you can't get on the bus unless you take off your religious clothing. This is fundamentally wrong. "
What your agent at SPO has done is a seed of hatred that needs to be stopped at all levels
Maggie also asked Air Canada to donate the children of the couple killed during a terrorist attack in El Paso, Texas, which claimed 22 lives. Investigators think of the mass shooting as a hate crime against Spanish immigrants.
"Obviously I don't blame Air Canada directly for that tragedy, but what your agent at the WCO (San Francisco International Airport) did is a seed of hatred that needs to be stopped at all levels," Maggie wrote.
Air Canada has apologized.
"On behalf of Air Canada, I would like to apologize for letting you down and leaving you disappointed after boarding a flight to San Francisco Airport," Maggie's spokesman wrote.
"I agree that this could have been better handled and I want to assure you personally that we are using your feedback to make sure improvements are made."
Sabrin added that the airline said it would consider donating children who lost their parents during a terrorist attack in El Paso.
Fatima didn't let the incident get her down – she won her squash tournament and hopes to be one of many.
She said she had no plans to use Air Canada again and it was unclear whether the US squash would continue to use Air Canada – the organization did not respond to a request for comment by the National Post Office.
But Fatima says she still loves Canada.
"I think it has not changed my perspective on Canada itself," she said. "There are many beautiful people."
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