Tuesday, January 12, 2010

For Immigrants, New Travel Concerns

January 9, 2010
New York Times
Anne Barnard

Eating spiced lamb at a bustling Yemeni restaurant in Downtown Brooklyn, Mahib Alkrizy said that since Sept. 11, 2001, his wife, a religious Muslim who covers her hair, has come to expect being patted down and stared at when she travels by plane.

Around the corner at Abu Yasser Travel Agency, employees waved a reporter away — they were tired of even talking about the Obama administration’s recent decision to impose tougher airline screening measures for people flying from 14 countries, including Yemen.

“People who travel a lot, they’re getting used to it,” said Abdul Alzundani, a clerk at the office of Yemenia, the national airline, nearby.

It was a different story at Odyssey African Market in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. Evident there, along with the smoked fish and kola nuts that loaded the narrow aisles, was much of the anguish that radiated from Arab-Americans in the days after 9/11.

For Nigerian immigrants, the news that their country was on the list, after a Nigerian citizen was charged with trying to blow up a Detroit-bound airliner on Christmas Day, was a new experience, bringing insult and a creeping fear that they were entering a new era of stigma and scrutiny.

“There is nothing like that in our record!” exclaimed Raymond Owolewa, 73, a retired Metropolitan Transportation Authority worker who brought his children to the United States from Nigeria more than three decades ago and was incensed that Nigeria was lumped in with nations the United States lists as state sponsors of terrorism, like Syria and Iran.

“Every country has radical people,” he added. “But we are not specializing in that.”

Five days after President Obama announced the new rules, it is too early to tell how they will ultimately affect people from Nigeria and the other listed countries, or New York’s Nigerian diaspora, which numbers more than 15,000, according to the Census Bureau. The immediate impact, Nigerians and Yemenis said, is simply inconvenience and fear of stigmatization; travel agents said no one was canceling trips.

But these immigrant communities are uncertain whether there could be, over time, a chilling effect on family visits or business travel. And Nigerians, for whom the problem is freshest, wonder if it is a precursor to more serious challenges like the ones Middle Easterners face, such as increased difficulty getting visas to study and work in America.

Nigeria and Yemen were bound together by the Dec. 25 bombing attempt, when, officials say, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, 19, a Nigerian Muslim working with a Qaeda cell in Yemen, tried to detonate explosives on a plane about to land in Detroit.

Besides Nigeria and Yemen, the rules affect Afghanistan, Algeria, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Cuba, Iran, Sudan and Syria. Anyone flying from those countries, and citizens of those countries flying from anywhere in the world, must undergo a pat-down and a check of their carry-on luggage before boarding. Critics say the rules will simply encourage plotters to recruit bombers in nonlisted countries.

Complicating reaction among Nigerians is the country’s tension between the mostly Christian south and the largely Muslim north. Many Nigerians in the United States are Christians, and their chagrin at the blow to Nigeria’s image was mixed with anger at growing Islamic extremism in the north of their country and concern that ill-informed Americans might now associate such views with all Nigerians.

Many blamed the Nigerian government for making their oil-rich country famous for corruption, e-mail get-rich-quick schemes, and, some argue, fertile ground for Qaeda recruiters.

Oliver Mbamara, of the New York-based Nigerian Lawyers Association, wrote in African Events magazine that Nigeria’s leaders were “turning a blind eye to elements that breed the type of circumstance and environment where the likes of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab thrive.”

Olujimi Gureje, who named his dog Umaru as a dig at Nigeria’s president, Umaru Yar’Adua, welcomed the rules and said Nigerians should not be quick to claim discrimination. “You are not Abdul-whatever-his-name-is,” he said, surrounded by African-influenced avant-garde clothing he designs at his boutique in Prospect Heights. “Take responsibility for yourself.”

He said Nigeria had received a wake-up call, and that Mr. Abdulmutallab, from a wealthy family, typified the aimlessness of the country’s young elite.

But more Nigerian-Americans saw the story as every parent’s nightmare. They praised Mr. Abdulmutallab’s father for alerting American authorities to his son’s growing extremism, insisted that Nigeria’s 150 million people were being penalized for a plot that had nothing to do with them, and opined — like many Yemenis — that the rules should apply to all countries.

“It goes to show the relations between powerful nations and weak nations,” said Eman Orji, 50, a paralegal who was buying kola nuts at Odyssey. The United Kingdom, he noted, was not placed on a “no-fly” list after a Briton, Richard C. Reid, tried to blow up a Miami-bound plane in December 2001: “It shows this air of superiority, that we can subject Nigeria to this kind of international humiliation.”

Sheri Adenekan, 39, a home health aide who stopped in for plantains, said, “Because of one person, a lot of people will suffer.”

The Yemeni airline office, despite its inviting pictures of Yemen’s dunes and ornate traditional houses, was deserted Wednesday but for the clerk, Mr. Alzundani. He grew up in New York but sent his wife and family back to Yemen so the children to study Arabic and Islam. Now he worries the new rules will have a very personal effect: loneliness.

His modest, traditional wife, he said, might refuse to visit him if it meant a pat-down or a walk through a machine that let guards see through her clothes.

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