PTSD at an American airport

A Canadian student from Lebanese origins was banned to enter the States. Upon her arrival to SFO in March 2021, Elianne had no idea that the most traumatizing hours of her life lied ahead.

Elianne had spent a semester in San Diego, pursuing studies and doing some volunteer work. During the first Covid-19 lockdown, courses were put on hold, and Elianne left the States to Lebanon so she could spend some time with her family. Her parents are dual citizens, going back and forth between Nova Scotia and Lebanon. This is her story, edited by A Story Of Thoughts.

In March 2021, I flew out of Lebanon to San Francisco, with San Diego as my final destination. Upon arrival, I was told that my volunteer work was questionable and I was taken to the immigration office for questioning. I had just landed from an eighteen hours flight, and I was naturally exhausted. I sat in the office for two hours, answering the same questions over and over again.

I was stripped down twice and asked several times if I had been to Yemen and after I had all my luggage searched, I was told that I am banned from entering the U.S. for five years.

That was it.

A travel ban with my name on it, with no additional information. I felt the ground spinning for a moment, I thought about my classes and it got harder to breathe.

Throughout this tormenting silence, the only comment I heard was : ” Since you are Canadian, would you like to go back to Canada or you’d rather take a flight back to Lebanon?”

I couldn’t think straight, I needed some reassurance and support so I asked for permission to contact my parents in Lebanon and my request was denied.

“No, the officer said. You’re an adult and you must be able to make decisions for yourself”.

“I’m sorry, I responded. Given the current state of affairs and the Covid-19 travel restrictions, I need to contact my parents before making this decision”.

The Officer felt challenged and replied : ” No, you are not a child, indicating the height of a child with her hand. You will not be contacting your family now. So, is it going to be Canada or Lebanon?”

I got triggered by this passive aggressive attitude and the comments I heard shook me to my core. I felt the need to defend my culture and my values so instead of staying silent and giving her the answers she wanted to hear, I said:

” In my culture, we don’t make pressing and life altering decisions on our own. We make them together as a family. My parents love me and I refuse to be alienated from the people who raised me”. I said that and I felt my whole being shaking. I was scared, I was sad, I was angry, I was tired…I was a mix of intense negative feelings.

At that point, the officer grabbed my arm, turned me around in a swift movement and put me in handcuffs. I was in such shock and disbelief that I started to cry and said :

“What are you doing? this is so weird”

And so the officer said:

” You are being hostile and you’re resisting an officer’s orders. Once you’ve learned to be respectful, we’ll let you go”.

I replied : “Handcuffing me and keeping me from talking to my family is supposed to calm me down? It is no wonder that half of your population is homeless and the other half is suicidal“.

After this edgy comment, the officer was completely appalled. She dragged me aggressively to the “g wing” where she confined me to a dark small room with nothing but a bench of steel inside.

I sat in the dark alone for two long hours and a storm of dark thoughts hit me. After that, I was relocated to a different room with five other deportees. The officers had taken our phones, our luggage and passports and they kept us there for the next twenty hours during which I experienced the most horrible thoughts and feelings. I got hot and cold flashes, I cried, I experienced intense nicotine withdrawal symptoms and underwent continuous verbal abuse and harassments from the officers.

At one point, they asked us what we wanted to eat. I was too nauseous to even think of food but the officer insisted and mentioned a ham sandwich. A few minutes later, he returned to ask if I was “allowed” to eat ham. He said: ” your name sounds muslim, so…

“My name is Elianne” I answered, ” it is a Christian name.

I wish I could describe the look on his face at that moment . The officer was puzzled for few seconds as it never occurred to him that a Middle Eastern girl could be Christian.

“So the issue it not my volunteer work, I said, it’s the fact that I’m Lebanese isn’t it?” but the officer did not respond.

Following nearly twenty four hours of detention is SFO, I was sent back to Lebanon through Istanbul where I was given my passport back. Few Arab men heard my story and I found my self surrounded by friendly faces, offering me a foldable chair, some coffee and some comfort. It felt good to be supported by a community. It was a community of strangers but a community nonetheless. After landing in Beirut’s airport, the view of a man passing his luggage through customs triggered my fresh traumatic memories and I started shaking again. I had thoughts of detention and dark rooms but being in a place where I am accepted and welcome was enough to make me breathe again.

Elianne is thankfully back home now and she is still processing the trauma she had lived in SFO. Her story reveals nothing but the tip of an immense iceberg of racism expressed by power-drunk individuals working in critical positions . We pause and think of all the other deportees who were exposed to harsher conditions and we say:

Police induced PTSD is real and harsh and we must speak up. We must refuse racism and we must defend the freedom of speech.

Take good care America.

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