#NoFlyListKids – My Toddler is Falsely Flagged as a Security Threat

Friday, July 21, 2017

Zamir and his son

Written by Zamir Khan (BASc '05)

It was late summer, 2002. At 20 years old, I had finished another academic term at the University of Waterloo and was ready for co-op. I had been matched with NVIDIA in Santa Clara, California and after spending my first work-terms near home, I was feeling excited and anxious about the journey.

I arrived at Pearson airport feeling well-prepared (thanks to co-op administrators) and thinking about upcoming California adventures. Travelling with me were two classmates who would be my roommates for the next four months (and would remain my friends for years to come). The plan was straightforward: our student visa applications would be approved at customs and off we would go. And that’s exactly what happened - for my two fellow travellers.

In a turn of events I will never forget, I was re-routed to a customs office, left to wait long enough to miss my flight, and finally interrogated, one-on-one in a closed room by an intimidating U.S. customs official. Seemingly unsatisfied with my answers, he told me to go home and make alternate plans for this work-term. I was devastated. When I returned to my parents at the check-in area, I broke down in tears. In that moment, I felt denied an amazing opportunity. I didn’t know that in a couple of days I would indeed be flying to California, and that living and working in Silicon Valley would be everything I hoped for. All it took was a visit to the U.S. consulate where I was told it was all a big mistake and “probably because of your name”. The political climate back then, with the anniversary of 9-11 days away, wasn’t very different from what it is today, and just as many are now, as I was, flagged prejudicially.

My years at UWaterloo were truly special. The skills that I gained, technical and otherwise, have enabled a fulfilling career in medical device development, initially as an employee and later as a consultant. Some of the best friends I have to this day are old Computer Engineering classmates and more than a decade after graduating, despite demanding jobs and family responsibilities, we still find time to catch up. In short, life is good and my decision years ago to attend UW has played no small part.

In fact, the only reason the above travel ordeal comes to mind is an ironic twist of fate. You see, my three-year-old son, Sebastian, is on Canada’s no fly list. As ridiculous as that sounds, my wife recently gave a first-hand account of how we discovered this and what we’re doing about it. The problem arises because the computer system that red-flags passengers simply goes by name and no other metadata. Not date of birth, passport number, or any other identifier. You can imagine the salt in the wound that revelation represented to me, as a computer engineer.

At first, I thought we were alone, but after connecting with another family whose six-year-old had the same issue, we decided to take action. Just like our 4th year design projects from years ago, I knew that even a small team could achieve big things with focus and dedication. As a group, we raised awareness through media appearances, created NoFlyListKids.ca, and effectively leveraged social media to rally support. Before long, dozens of other affected families reached out to us. Aside from children, we were contacted by Canadian veterans, executives, doctors, and even airline pilots that were hampered by this archaic system. I met a bright young man named Adam, who is also on the list and recently started his Waterloo journey.

The awareness generated by the #NoFlyListKids movement has opened a dialogue with the Canadian government. The Ministry of Public Safety has expressed a desire to resolve the issue by creating a redress system (similar to the one that exists south of the border), but has failed to secure the funding to do so. Funding the solution to this problem is important, not only to enable thousands of children and other upstanding Canadians to travel freely, but to make us safer by replacing an outdated security system. The University of Waterloo’s Latin motto is Concordia cum veritate or “In harmony with truth”. I couldn’t feel more aligned with those words than I do when I advocate for #NoFlyListKids. I hope you’ll join me.