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Canadian Arab youth feel forced to alter appearance and behaviour at borders

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Canadian youth of Arab descent often feel they must change the way they look or act to avoid discrimination when they travel across borders, according to a recent study.

Researchers from the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University asked 65 Canadian Arab people between the ages of 18 and 22 how they felt their Arab background affected their travel experiences, particularly at airports where heightened security measures could mean arbitrary search and seizures or delays. 

“We found a very prominent tendency in Canadian Arab youth to dissociate themselves from what makes them distinct as Arabs in order to feel safer and more accepted when they travel,” said Bessma Momani, lead researcher on the study and a professor of political science at Waterloo who specializes in the Middle East. “They demonstrate remarkable resiliency when dealing with uncomfortable situations at the border. Their efforts to minimize profiling were shocking and consistent across groups.”

For example, participants reported that they shaved their beards prior to travel, or dressed in sportswear or clothing bearing logos from Canadian universities. Some females said they modify their Muslim appearance by wearing bright clothing and makeup and wrapping their hijab back into a bun in an attempt to minimize unwanted attention. 

The participants also take steps to be extra nice, such as smiling more when responding to security officers and avoid speaking Arabic. They also told researchers about avoiding travel to certain countries where there had recently been a terror attack or protest. Some reported paying more to travel via transfer points in Middle Eastern countries where they feel safer.

“The study reminds us that young Canadian Arab people face great challenges at the border and have to internalize a lot of stress that many other Canadians don’t have to encounter,” said Momani. “It’s valuable to understand them if we want to create an inclusive society that benefits everyone.”

Momani’s co-authors are Melissa Finn, a postdoctoral fellow at Waterloo, and Jenna Hennebry, a professor at Laurier’s School of International Policy and Governance. All three are also affiliated with the Balsillie School of International Affairs. The study appeared in the Journal of International Migration and Integration. The study is part of Momani’s work under the fellowship she received from the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation. Her project is Arab Canadian Youth: Pursuing Responsible Citizenship to Counter Disempowerment & Disengagement.


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