By Yasin Kakande
This week, I feel compelled to share a deeply troubling experience that unfolded during my recent trip to Colombia.
I stepped off the plane in Bogota, excitement coursing through my veins as I anticipated my first visit to Colombia. Clutching my American Green Card, a testament to my status as a permanent resident, I approached the immigration checkpoint with a mix of hope and curiosity. Little did I know that the journey ahead would test my resolve and expose the ugly face of discrimination.
As I joined the queue, I couldn’t help but notice the diverse group of travelers around me. People of various nationalities flowed through the immigration counters with ease, their passports warmly accepted by the Colombian immigration officers. But as I approached the counter, a cloud of unease settled over me, a nagging intuition that this encounter might not be as welcoming as I had hoped.
I handed my Ugandan passport and American Green Card to the immigration officer, a middle-aged man with a stern expression etched on his face. He glanced at the documents and then looked up at me, his eyes lingering a moment too long on my dark skin. I brushed off the uncomfortable feeling, reminding myself that this was simply routine procedure.
However, as the officer scrutinized my papers, a flicker of disdain passed through his eyes. He flipped through the pages, seemingly searching for a reason to deny me entry. My heart sank, my optimism slowly eroding as each passing second stretched into eternity. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was not a mere bureaucratic procedure but a manifestation of deep-seated prejudice.
With an air of authority, the immigration officer leaned forward, his voice laced with condescension. “I’m sorry, but you are not allowed entry into Colombia,” he declared, his words heavy with unwarranted judgment.
Confusion and disbelief enveloped me. I tried to gather my thoughts, searching for the strength to challenge this unjust decision. “But I hold an American Green Card,” I protested, my voice tinged with frustration.
He met my gaze, a hint of a smirk playing on his lips, as if relishing the power he held in that moment. “The rules are different for African countries,” he sneered, his words dripping with discrimination. He directed me to another official who escorted me to a secluded area, reserved for their immigration investigative procedures.
Anger surged within me, fueled by the injustice of his words. How could he judge me solely based on the color of my skin? How could he disregard the exemption for all American permanent residents? This was not just about my personal journey; it was a reflection of a deeply rooted prejudice that needed to be challenged.
I had embarked on my journey to Colombia with the understanding that my Green Card would exempt me from requiring a visa. This information was also supported by various immigration websites and resources.
Moreover, the Avianca airline staff at Logan International Airport verified my travel documents, including my Green Card, and informed me that it was sufficient for a visa exemption.
In the secluded area, the other immigration officer’s behavior was dismissive and disrespectful, speaking only through a female translator and pressuring me to sign my deportation document in Spanish, despite my limited understanding of the language. I only obliged not to escalate the situation.
My Colombian host attempted to communicate on phone with the officer in Spanish, because they believed it was a language problem, and their pleas fell on deaf ears.
Consequently, my intended four-day stay in Bogota to celebrate my graduation from Emerson College (MFA – Creative Writing) turned into a 20-hour ordeal in the deportation lounge, awaiting the next available flight.
Even upon departure, the treatment I received was undignified. I was made to stand at the plane’s entrance with an officer holding my passports, while all other passengers boarded. This experience left me feeling embarrassed and humiliated.
During my time in the deportation lounge, I witnessed the plight of other African travelers.
For instance, I met Herman, a Cameroonian medical student who possessed a valid visa to attend a science conference in Cartagena. Despite providing a valid explanation for obtaining his visa from Accra, Ghana, due to the absence of a Colombian embassy in Cameroon, he was still subjected to deportation.
Another individual, Yusuf from Morocco, was also being deported simply because he did not possess a return air ticket.
The stress and despair visible among the people in the lounge were palpable. Some were willing to share their stories, while others remained resigned and withdrawn. This experience left me with the understanding that the unfair treatment and deportation of Black individuals are widespread issues that need to be addressed.
The deportation lounge was predominantly occupied by individuals of African descent. While it is comprehensible that Colombia has been highlighted as a significant transit hub for migrants en route to the US, it is unjust to lump together all Black or African individuals with legal status into this categorization.
My ordeal finally came to an end upon my arrival in Boston. Although the airline crew had possession of my passports and were expected to formally hand them over to Boston immigration upon landing, the pilot approached me while I patiently waited to disembark and inquired, “You mentioned having a Green Card, right?” I affirmed his question, stating “yes.” To my surprise, he gestured towards my passports located in the cabin and advised me to simply take them and proceed. He assured me that everything was in order.
With a sense of relief, I smoothly passed through Boston immigration without encountering any issues or complications.
Traveling through airports as an African Black person is an experience fraught with challenges, and the prevalence of racism within these spaces is deeply disheartening.
Despite being legally entitled to travel, African travelers frequently encounter harassment and discrimination at the hands of immigration officials. It is a harsh reality that goes largely unnoticed, as these distressing incidents often go unreported and unacknowledged by the media. In the court of the world, it seems that all Africans are perceived as guilty, their actions deemed suspect merely for attempting to explore opportunities beyond their own continent.
It is high time we, as Africans, take the responsibility of sharing our stories and advocating for fair treatment at airports around the world. The airport, once seen as a gateway to adventure and new horizons, has become a breeding ground for systemic biases and prejudices.
The current anti-immigration climate has only exacerbated the already existing discrimination faced by African travelers. Unjust stereotypes and misconceptions have clouded the perceptions of immigration officials, leading to a prejudiced lens through which African Black people are viewed.
Despite having the necessary legal documentation and complying with all travel requirements, they are subjected to unwarranted scrutiny, profiling, and humiliation.
These incidents are not isolated occurrences in Bogota; they are rampant and deeply ingrained within airport systems worldwide. Yet, regrettably, they often go unreported or unnoticed. Media outlets fail to shine a spotlight on these cases, perpetuating the silence surrounding the plight of African travelers. This silence allows these discriminatory practices to persist, reinforcing the notion that the experiences of African Black people are not worthy of attention or empathy.
It is time for Africans to reclaim their narratives and tell their stories. By sharing our experiences and shedding light on the pervasive discrimination we face while traveling, we can bring about change. Social media platforms, personal blogs, and community-led initiatives provide powerful tools to amplify our voices and showcase the realities that often go unnoticed.
Our stories carry weight and have the potential to challenge preconceived notions, dismantle stereotypes, and promote understanding. Advocacy for fair treatment at all world airports is essential. It begins by demanding accountability from airport authorities, immigration agencies, and policymakers.
Clear guidelines must be established to prevent racial profiling and discrimination. Immigration officials must undergo extensive training to foster cultural sensitivity, eradicate bias, and ensure that all travelers, regardless of their ethnicity or nationality, are treated with dignity and respect.
It is time for change. The next time we step into an airport, we should not be burdened with the weight of prejudice. Our journey should be defined by excitement, adventure, and the prospect of meaningful connections.
Let us break the silence, share our stories, and advocate for fair treatment. Together, we can reshape the narrative and ensure that airports become spaces where diversity is celebrated, prejudices are shattered, and every traveler is granted the respect they deserve, regardless of their race or nationality.