“No Fly List” No Match for Libyan-American Aid Worker

Jamal Tarhuni waited 20 minutes for the airline assistant to return with his driver’s license. Slowly he realized he would not be flying to Seattle that day.

Tarhuni, a Libyan-American aid worker, was supposed to fly from Portland to Seattle to speak at the World Affairs Council’s Libyan Rebels and Healers event last Wednesday. But customer service told him he was not allowed to board “for security reasons.”

“Now I know that I am on a no-fly list,” Tarhuni said.

The incident came as no surprise to him, considering what had happened a month earlier.

After making three trips to Libya last year and distributing humanitarian aid to victims of the war, Tarhuni once again prepared to return to the United States. But on Jan. 17, the airline refused to let him board his flight and instead sent him to the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia.

There he was questioned by the FBI for a month.

He finally reunited with his family on Feb. 14, but was never told why he had been barred from reentering the U.S. His attorney told him it might be because he was on a no-fly list.

“This [Seattle trip] was an opportunity for me to either travel or be stopped,” Tarhuni said.

The United States no-fly list is intended to “identify suspected terrorists,” “facilitate the travel of legitimate passengers” and “protect passengers’ privacy and civil liberties,” according to the Transportation Security Administration website.

“It’s a list that I have heard is mostly people who are suspected of terrorist activity,” Tarhuni said. “I had never done anything to be associated with people who would harm the United States.”

But with no chance of catching a flight, and with only five hours left until the panel discussion, Tarhuni had to make a choice: Cancel his appearance, or drive 175 miles from Portland to Seattle.

He hit the road.

“I am a person that will do whatever it takes to make sure I stay true to my commitments,” Tarhuni said. “It would be unfair to the World Affairs Council people who are putting this program together to cancel on them at the last minute.”

After driving through Pacific Northwest weather for three hours, he finally arrived in Seattle and was able to join the four other panelists who had all served as volunteers during the Libya uprising. 84 people came to hear them speak and to ask questions.

Tarhuni told stories from all three of his trips to Libya, and showed photos of people he worked with and helped. In one of the photos, Tarhuni holds the hand of a boy who is in hospital with a bandaged leg.

“He asked me to raise his hand so he could do the peace sign,” Tarhuni told the audience.

As a Libyan-American, Tarhuni feels that he owes it to both countries to give people a clear picture of what is going on in Libya right now.

Still unable to travel by air, Tarhuni boarded a train today in order to catch a meeting in Minnesota. He said he is still working with his attorney to restore his travel privileges and clear his name.

“I think the FBI needs to do the right thing,” he said. “They have already done enough damage to my reputation and caused enough pain to myself and my family.”

By Daniel Drake, Communications Intern.