I hadn’t thought about the racial underbelly of Ebola airport surveillance until I experienced it for myself this week.
It all started at Heathrow Airport, where a “trainee” airline official asked me three times what I was doing in the UK even though I mentioned five times that I was a student, pointing emphatically to my very valid visa in a passport emblazoned with “Republic of Liberia” on the cover in gold letters.
His boss, a no-nonsense looking woman with dark hair and soft brown eyes, wanted proof of residence in the UK, something I had never been asked to show before. When I looked at her, visibly annoyed, she tried a different line of questioning.
“Do you have other proof that you are studying here?”
When I whipped out my school ID, she seemed momentarily appeased but not quite satisfied.
“Why are you travelling to the US?” she continued.
“I’m attending a conference,” I said pre-emptively handing her my US residency card.
“Are you coming back to the UK?” she wondered.
“Yes, I have to finish my programme,” I said. Her soft eyes hardened as she wordlessly waved me through to the baggage drop off line.
“I saw them giving you a hard time back there,” said a black British man I ran into moments later.
“I have a Liberian passport,” I said. He nodded in empathy, with the knowing look of someone who had experienced similar provocation.
The spectre of Ebola followed me to the east coast of the United States. Disembarking from the jumbo jet in a mad dash to catch a connecting flight, I walked purposefully to the line marked “permanent residents”. A burly officer holding what appeared to be a list of passengers approached me. Here we go again, I thought.
“May I see your passport?” he said in a tone that was more command that request. Taking the document, he flipped through the filled up pages for what appeared like hours, then asked, “When was the last time you were in Liberia?”
“July,” I said. He paused. I could sense he was counting in his head the months, days, hours, minutes, and seconds, to ensure that I was not infectious or diseased.
“You were born in 198X?” I responded in the affirmative, hyper aware that he knew the answer before asking. “I may have to ask you more questions later,” he said gruffly.
“No problem,” I said in bemusement. As he motioned for me to move to the immigration officer on duty, I wondered if he and others like him had undergone mandatory technical and sensitivity training for Ebola surveillance. It seemed obvious to me that they needed it.
“When was the last time you were in Africa?” began the next line of questioning.
I responded with a cheeky retort, “Well, I was in LIBERIA in July.” The immigration official seemed completely unphased that I was mocking his description of Africa as a monolith swallowed whole by Ebola.
“How are you feeling?” he said in an attempt to gauge my state of health. “I feel great, like a million bucks!” I said. I really wanted to shout, “I am a Liberian, not a virus!” the slogan coined by a Liberian woman, Dr. Katurah Cooper, which recently went viral on social media. The man verified my fingerprints, stamped my passport heartily, and handed me the document, a fake smile plastered on his chiselled face.
My gait picked up as I tried to make it to the customs line unmolested. Too late. Another officer stood in the way, motioning for my passport. We went through what became a familiar tango and then it was over. I looked back briefly to see if he had stopped anyone else. He hadn’t.
From London to Philadelphia, I went through five lines of questioning in which my passport was perused, poked, and prodded. Like my travel document, I felt exposed and laid bare, wondering where Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and the NAACP were when you needed them.
I was not travelling directly from Liberia, Guinea or Sierra Leone – the three countries in Ebola’s tight grip. Nor was there anything suspicious or out of the ordinary about my travel documents. If I was not immune to this brand of inspection, I could only imagine the negative reception others of my ilk might face.
There’s a phrase that was popular in the 1990s, “driving while black”, which African-Americans coined in the US to expose the insidiousness of racial profiling. The 21st century version of that phrase should be “traveling while Liberian…or Guinean, or Sierra Leonean” in the age of Ebola.
I come from a stock of dignified and resilient people, but there’s only so much we can take. Attempts to quell international hysteria about Ebola with increased airport surveillance should not obscure the threat this poses to the rights and dignity of the “surveyed”.
Ebola airport screenings must not be a smokescreen for harassment, intimidation, and racial profiling.
Robtel Neajai Pailey is a Liberian academic, activist and author based at SOAS, University of London.