Grounded: What it's like to be a No Fly List kid
I remember being only 5 when I first realized something was wrong.
It was during a trip we were taking to Palm Springs over March Break. Dad had a business meeting to attend there, and the whole family was tagging along.
“Hi there, where are you all flying to this morning?” the grinning airline clerk asked once we arrived at one of the airport’s check-in counters.
“Palm Springs,” my dad replied as he handed over our passports.
The check-in officer started scanning the passports. My dad’s — check. My mom’s — check … then abruptly, Yusuf’s — Beep. Aadam’s — Beep. And then mine — Beep!
Her eyes widened as she flicked from my brothers’ passports to mine, to my parents, and then back again.
With a puzzled look on her face she told my father, “I am afraid I will need to make a phone call. The system will not permit me to issue any of your boys a boarding pass. They will not be able to board the aircraft.”
My father explained to the now-frowning clerk that there must be some sort of computer issue and that she should try again. Perplexed, the clerk carefully scanned my passport into the system once again. But instead of receiving boarding passes, her supervisor came. Then a flurry of questions that baffled my 5-year-old mind.
“They are kids: 10, 8 and 5 years old. What should I tell their parents?”
The more attention we drew to ourselves the more I wanted to cry, but I knew I couldn’t.
Back on that cold March day, four hours would pass before an Air Canada agent finally let us through, but by that time we had already missed our flight. What should have been a relaxing trip to Palm Springs turned into a disaster, all because something as innocent as my name was apparently similar to someone who was deemed to be too dangerous to board an airplane.
I recalled my Grade 2 teacher’s message to “never judge a book by its cover.” I felt I was judged in the harshest manner — solely for my name, my identity, what makes me, me.
The harassment my brothers and I faced at the airport is not unique to us. Many other children, youth, and adults have had to pay the harsh price for unjustifiably being on Canada’s No Fly List. I soon learned that there are thousands of others like me.
Another Adam Ahmed was 6 years old when his parents realized he had been flagged as a travel risk since he was a toddler, Sebastian Khan from London, Ont., was flagged on eight separate occasions prior to boarding domestic flights. David Mathews was only 5 when his parents, Jeff and Dawn, learned that their son was also on this list.
It is inconceivable to me how the existing systems don’t distinguish innocent toddlers and young children from those who pose a real threat to national security?
I am now 16. My brothers are 19 and 21. It is even scarier being on this list now, because people around us look at us suspiciously when we are being questioned by ticket agents. This suspicion stays with us as we pass through security lines, sit in airport lounges and even when we are finally in our airplane seats. It does not feel good at all.
Canada’s No Fly List was implemented in 2007 as a part of the Passenger Protect Program to ensure air passenger security. Although the program was designed to crack down on potentially dangerous travellers, the Passenger Protect Program does not utilize unique identifiers, such as passport numbers or dates of birth, to differentiate travellers who share similar first and last names.
This faulty method blindly paints every Canadian citizen who shares a similar name as an immediate travel threat. There are approximately 100,000 Canadians who are falsely on the No Fly List. This broad approach has alienated innocent Canadians and disincentivizes individuals on the list to travel in order to avoid harassment prior to boarding.
The shared experiences of families and wrongly accused individuals planted the seeds for the conception of the No-Fly List Kids group in 2016. Together, our group has gained wide support from the general public through grassroots advocacy and through dialogue with lawmakers.
The journey has been exhausting, however. Years of hard work and support resulted in the federal government’s verbal commitment to fund a revamped redress system through the National Security Act — Bill C-59. Yet, what’s worrying to all of us now is the ongoing delay with regards to the passing of Bill C-59 in the Senate.
The system is in urgent need of repair. No one should feel like they are a security threat on the simple account of their name. It’s time for Canada’s Senate to get this fixed.
Issa Ahmed is 16 years old and is a member of the No Fly List Kids coalition.