By Rachel Browne
Before Adam Ahmed could even walk or talk, he was flagged as a security risk in Canada.
His parents, Sulemaan Ahmed and Khadija Cajee, suspected there was something wrong shortly after he was born when they were traveling to Mexico on a family vacation. They couldn’t check in online for their flights and Mexican border guards took their passports away for half an hour without telling them why.
“We just thought that either myself or my husband were being flagged because of our names or something,” Cajee told VICE News in their home in Markham, Ontario, a suburb of Toronto, where Adam was born.But a couple months later when they were flying to Halifax to visit relatives, an Air Canada agent told them that their infant son had a “deemed high profile” label on his file. This means he could be on a Canadian or US no-fly list, and has to undergo special screening and questioning before getting on a flight. “She was in disbelief and just thought it was so absurd, and so that’s why she told us. Before that, nobody was telling us anything,” Cajee added.
Since then, Adam, now six years old, has never been denied getting on a flight, but has to get to the airport in plenty of time so flight agents can clear his identity and confirm that he’s not a flight risk. “It’s not so invasive right now because he’s so young, but I am so worried that if he’s still on this list when he’s older, he will get pulled aside and made to feel guilty for just being himself,” Cajee said.
His parents say they tried to reach out to the federal ministers of transport and public safety, but neither would even verify that Adam was on any watch list. They finally got confirmation last month when Adam and his father Sulemaan were traveling to Boston to see the NHL winter classic hockey game. While the Air Canada agent was making the usual call to clear Adam for travel, Sulemaan took a photo of the screen that listed his “deemed high profile” status and tweeted it out.
His tweet caused a firestorm on Twitter, with the Ralph Goodale, the new public safety minister, and Ahmed’s local member of parliament (MP) personally responding that they will look into the matter.
At this point, it’s unclear whether Adam is on a Canadian or American no-fly list. A spokesperson with Canada’s department of public safety would not respond to specific questions from VICE News.
“It is important to recognize that there are many reasons individuals may not be allowed to board a flight or may experience delays at the airport,” wrote Mylene Croteau in an email. “For example, other countries, as well as airlines, maintain various security-related lists with different criteria and thresholds, which may result in delays for individuals traveling to, from, or even within Canada.
Delays may occur for passengers who have the same name as a person listed under the PPP [Passenger Protect Program], or another security-related list such as the US no-fly list.”
Croteau added that passengers who have experienced problems in the past may want to “contact the airline’s customer service representative to explain their situation and to see what steps can be taken prior to arriving at the airport.”
Air Canada would not comment on the specifics of Adam’s case or any security databases and pointed passengers experiencing problems back to the government.
“[A]s a general policy we do not discuss security processes and procedures as this could compromise their effectiveness. I can tell you Air Canada complies with applicable laws in all jurisdictions where we operate and for information on these you should contact the respective government agency responsible, ” wrote Air Canada spokesperson Peter Fitzpatrick in an email.
Canada’s no-fly list, also known as the specified person’s list, was expanded under the previous Conservative government’s controversial anti-terror legislation, Bill C-51. It has drawn criticism for being overly broad.
Sukanya Pillay, executive director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association (CCLA) told VICE News that Adam’s case “underscores the urgency for the Canadian government to take immediate steps to investigate and rectify any errors.”
“The CCLA has long been concerned about the procedural failures of Canada’s No Fly List — which in our view has a series of pitfalls that allow for serious mistakes — including mistaken identity, violations of constitutional rights including mobility rights and due process rights — and have an inadequate appeal process.”
Since her husband’s tweet went out, Adam’s mother says she’s been overwhelmed with phone calls and messages from more than a dozen families across the country who say their children have also been “deemed high profile” by a government agency.
“All of them are Muslim or have Arabic sounding names,” Cajee said. “I’m even hearing from long-time friends who are going through the same thing we are, but they just haven’t been open about it.”
Toronto woman Khudija Ali-Vawda reached out to Cajee about her son, Naseer Muhammad Ali, also from Toronto, who was flagged on a security risk list in 2013, when he was about two months old, when they were getting on a flight to Jamaica.”
“I was a little surprised and upset, I thought that if it was a kid, he wouldn’t be subject to such security. He was super small. And the worst part is, that at the checkpoint in Jamaica, they patted down my baby’s diaper. It was really horrifying.”
Ali-Vawda said she hadn’t planned on going public, but was inspired by Adam’s story and hopes to help raise awareness.
“We don’t think we should have to change his name. And we don’t have anything to hide. I don’t want my son to have to grow up with this scrutiny.”
Cajee and her husband are meeting with their MP on Wednesday and they hope immediate action is taken to remove their son from the list.
“I don’t want him to have to go through this for the rest of his life. He has done nothing wrong other than be born and having a Muslim name,” she said.
Follow Rachel Browne on Twitter: @rp_browne – Vice News
By Rachel Browne