Letter from the Road #29

Path of the Friend

Elizabeth Rabia Roberts


Our Great Loss


This story must be told.

Omar Diop is a finely-built black man, about 45 years old with small laugh lines radiating from his bright eyes. He lives in Dakar, Senegal, where he has spent much of his life working for peace through nonviolence in central Africa.

In July I traveled to Mexico to meet with him and 15 other internationals for the annual Board meeting of the Nonviolent Peaceforce (NP). Part of our agenda included a briefing and discussion of whether the Peaceforce should explore getting involved in the conflict in Northern Uganda/ Sudan. Omar’s experience on this topic and with our other business was greatly needed.

But Omar never showed up in Mexico. We grew worried. Was he stranded somewhere? Had there been an accident? Or worse?

After waiting half a day for Omar to arrive in Quernavaca for our meeting, the NP staff began searching. After multiple phone calls they found that Omar had been deemed a security threat to the United States and was in the custody of Houston Immigration and its new policies to improve the security of our homeland.

“First they kept me for 7 hours of interrogation, then I was chained arms and legs and taken under guard to a damp wet cell. The toilet was bad. There were no beds and nothing to eat.”

Omar’s flight from Senegal to Mexico involved transit connections through Paris and Houston. Unfortunately neither Omar’s travel agent nor Continental nor Air France had told him of the new U.S. policy requiring “transit visas” for any foreign national traveling through the U.S. to another destination.

This is just a bad mix-up we thought at first, and made plans to delay the opening session of our meeting. We called immigration in Mexico City who told us they would have no problem with Omar entering Mexico. We found an immigration lawyer in Houston and he called the immigration office to explain Omar’s background and destination. There would be someone to pick him up at the airport and vouch for him.

“No,” we were told. Immigration was pressing the full weight of the law “in this case.” I imagine if his name was Tom, his skin was white, and he was coming to Mexico as a consultant for Halliburton, the Houston attorney might have been able to resolve the case at this stage. But Omar is a black man with an Arabic name. He was considered without legal rights.

To further plead Omar’s case, NP staff contacted the U.S. Congressman and U.S. Senator from Minnesota (site of the NP U.S office). They tried to talk with immigration and sort things out. Again to no avail.

Omar never made it to Mexico. 30 hours after he was detained, he was taken to the airport office in chains to wait another 11 hours, given one sandwich to eat, and then he was sent back to Paris on Continental Airlines. His onward trip from Paris to Mexico or to Senegal was his problem and his expense. Unable to get a flight to Mexico City in time to make our meeting, he went home.

Whose security did these actions protect? Yours? Mine? Surely sufficient legal and political help had been secured to reassure immigration authorities that Omar was not a terrorist. In fact, the officers were repeatedly told by congressmen and lawyers from two states that he was a peace worker with an international non-governmental organization. But this did not stop the abusive treatment.

One week later, an NP staff member called the Immigration Service in Houston and asked for information about an African man’s detention there a week earlier. She reported that he had been subjected to “shackles, no water, and no bed.” The officer responded you should “hit the person who told you that with a brick,” because it wasn’t true. Asked if the officer could be quoted, he replied “Yes!”

But there were others to testify to the reality of Omar’s treatment — two Palestinians, one Mexican and one Venezuelan suffered the same treatment with him. It was standard fare, I was told, for Mexicans in route home through Houston. Have all dark skinned foreigners become our enemy? Are we so afraid?

Middle class Americans are among the most fearful people I have met in our global travels. And every day the government and its policies feed this fear. Imagine the impact of seeing a black man in shackles walked through the airport by armed guards. The whispered comments – the children pulled near – the not so subtle message that “they” are coming at us from all directions. We are not safe.

Of course, we are all frightened by violence. Freedom always includes some risk. However terrorizing innocent foreigners is not making our country more secure. How abusive will we allow our society to become, how much freedom will we give up, and how many guns will we pay for (190 million by the latest count) to create an illusion of safety?

Omar has asked that there be no wide scale protest of his treatment. “Use your energy to work for peace in Uganda and Sudan.” He will continue his peace work, but it is unlikely he will be able to visit the United States in the future. It is our great loss.

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