Tuesday, 30 May 2017

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Former NASA doctor says he was detained at TIA because of his Muslim name

By Christopher O'Donnell, For Tampa Bay Times, On 01 May 2017, Read Original

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TAMPA — Dr. Osman "Ozzie" Ahmed was once trusted with the health of U.S. astronauts.

A former NASA shuttle mission physician and a U.S. citizen since 1991, he's also an approved "low-risk" traveler and gets to skip the line while other passengers remove their belts and shoes during screening.

So the Tampa doctor was stunned and scared when his passport was taken from him and he was detained for about an hour by U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers on his arrival at Tampa International Airport on Sunday.

He believes he was singled out because of his name and birthplace.

"I have a Muslim name, and I was born in Egypt," said Ahmed, 68. "That was enough for them to start harassing me."

Officials with the Council on American-Islamic Relations say Ahmed's experience is becoming more common for U.S. travelers who have Arabic-sounding names or originally come from traditionally Muslim countries.

That includes the son of legendary boxer Muhammed Ali, who was detained for more than 90 minutes at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in February and questioned about his religion when returning from a trip to Jamaica.

"This goes to a direct targeting of Muslims," said Wilfredo A. Ruiz, a spokesman for CAIR-Florida. "What we're having is more harassment and secondary screenings and more random inspections."

Customs and Border Protection officials said privacy rules prevent them from commenting on individual cases and that any traveler could be subject to additional inspection by their officers.

The agency admits more than 1 million travelers into the United States every day at more than 330 air, land and sea ports of entry. It denies entry to an average of 600 individuals a day.

The agency, which falls within the Department of Homeland Security, said it does not have figures for how many of the travelers refused entry or detained are Muslims.

"Some referrals for additional screening are for reasons other than information in law enforcement databases, such as the individual's circumstances of travel or random selection," said spokesman Keith Smith in a statement.

Homeland Security does provide an online system where travelers who have been detained on entry or denied boarding can file a complaint or seek redress.

Ahmed has already filed his complaint but has not heard back, he said.

His work with NASA was in the early 1990s when he conducted medical checks on shuttle astronauts at Kennedy Space Center, he said. That was through a contract between the space agency and the University of Florida, where Ahmed worked as an assistant professor.

He now works as a medical director with WellMed. His trip abroad was to attend a medical advisory board meeting in Frankfurt. He also visited his son in Prague and flew back to Tampa via Zurich.

When he presented his passport on his return, an officer asked him to confirm that he was born in Egypt. After he answered "yes," the officer kept his passport, he said, and asked him to wait in a secluded area where a recorded message said the use of cellphones was prohibited.

When his passport was finally returned to him, he asked for an explanation and was told his name or fingerprints may have been mixed up with someone else's.

Ahmed said he demanded a more accurate explanation and that the officer got angry and told him he had to leave. He was then delayed going through customs even though he had nothing to declare on his customs form, he said.

The treatment of Muslim travelers at U.S. airports and other ports of entries has been in the national spotlight since President Donald Trump in his first month in office signed an executive order suspending the entry of refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries.

That was overturned in federal court, as was a second order that narrowed the ban to six countries.

The American Civil Liberties Union earlier this month filed a lawsuit against Customs and Border Protection seeking records from its field offices in Tampa and Miami to show how travelers were affected.

Ahmed's homeland of Egypt was not one of the countries affected by the bans. Nonetheless, he is convinced that his name and place of origin led to him being detained.

He said he understands the need for heightened security in this age but cannot fathom why a long-established citizen like himself who is approved for expedited security screening by the TSA would come under suspicion.

He still has older siblings in Egypt whom he would like to visit.

"This scares me so much to think I have limited freedom in my travel," he said.

Contact Christopher O'Donnell at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or at (813) 226-3446. Follow @codonnell_Times