Last summer three Eritrean refugees were arrested after they tried to board an airplane, at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport going to Des Moines, with a carry-on bag that contained a broken cellphone taped to a tin of helva (a sesame-paste-based food flavored with vanilla). The charges? Having a “hoax device” and “conspiracy” to obtain a hoax device. The three tried to explain that they were just trying to take candy and the old phone to friends. Authorities claimed, however – via questionable reasoning – that the three were attempting to do a trial run to see if they could get a “real bomb” through security, since this was assuredly not a real bomb (helva is not explosive, nor were there any fake wires or a fake detonation device attached). The authorities also deemed suspicious the three traveling in the month of August, being so close to the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, you see – and besides, everyone knows that cell phones are used to detonate bombs. Surely the refugees must have carried aboard a broken cell phone during this “dry run” to fool authorities into thinking that it could not be used to trigger a detonator. But what about that tin of helva, that was suspicious wasn’t it? Well, helva it turns out is an Eritrean ethnic food. Maybe they were trying to trick authorities into thinking the helva was not suspicious since Eritreans are known to eat helva. Plus, some might say it would be nitpicking to point out that federal agents, in first contacts with the Eritrean refugees, used an interpreter that did not speak their Kunama language, thus leading to faulty linguistic interpretations.
Now the three are trying to overcome the false “terrorist” label affixed to them in public opinion. This smear is now an obstacle to employment, nine months later, and months after all charges were suddenly dropped. An article in The Republic looks at the aftermath of the false charges:
Civil war drove Shullu Gorado from his home in Eritrea, a small country on the Horn of Africa, and landed him — like most Kunama — in a refugee camp in neighboring Ethiopia.
Ethiopia was no kinder to the refugees than their war-torn homeland, but the United States welcomed the Kunama people, promising safety and the opportunity for a new life to the former farmers and shepherds. In four years,Gorado rose steadily through the ranks at a local supermarket, stashing away savings and taking general-education and English-language classes as he worked toward a new future in a new country.
But after being arrested on suspicion of plotting to sneak a hoax explosive device through airport security, serving two months in a federal detention facility, then having the charges against him dropped in December, Gorado and Asa Shani are branded as terrorists in the eyes of many. Among those viewing them with suspicion, they say, are prospective employers who need only perform a perfunctory Internet search to find coverage of their arrests… Read more here