NEWS
11/22/2018 13:27 EST | Updated 11/22/2018 17:36 EST

'No Fly List Kids' Group Returns To Parliament Hill To Appeal To Senators

A single tweet kickstarted the campaign years ago.

Parents and children from the "No Fly List Kids" group went to Parliament Hill to appeal to Senators and push for changes to Canada's no-fly list.
Submitted/Twitter
Parents and children from the "No Fly List Kids" group went to Parliament Hill to appeal to Senators and push for changes to Canada's no-fly list.

It's been almost three years since Sulemaan Ahmed sent out a tweet that would kick off a monumental campaign to change Canadian public policy.

It was Dec. 31, 2015. Ahmed was departing Halifax on his way to Boston to watch the NHL Winter Classic with his son, Adam, who was six at the time.

Adam was falsely flagged as "high profile" on Canada's no-fly list — just like he has been since he was seven weeks old. Ahmed snapped a photo of the airline agent's screen and shared it on Twitter.

The story flailed across social media and was picked up by many news outlets. Ahmed said it landed in the U.K., in Argentina, in Turkey. Even Conan O'Brien poked fun at it.

"We land in Toronto [for a layover] and before we clear U.S. customs, I turn on my phone for a second and then all hell breaks loose," Ahmed told HuffPost Canada over the phone this week. "Everyone texting me to say 'check Twitter!'"

"I did what any brave person would do. I said to my wife, 'Honey, you take care of this!'"

Amid all the media attention, Ahmed and his wife Khadija started hearing from other parents who had sons or daughters of all ages on Canada's no-fly list. They too knew the delays, the humiliating wait at the check-in counter, the bewildering moment you find out your stroller-bound child is on a list of people considered to be threats to aviation security.

Watch: This Young Canadian Is Fighting To Change Canada's No-Fly List

Ahmed and his wife wanted to go public and call the issue out, but they wanted more support. They needed another family to back them up, or as Ahmed put it: He was Scottie Pippen looking for a Michael Jordan to come off the bench.

That person was Zamir Khan.

"I remember him saying that," the father of three told HuffPost, laughing at Ahmed's metaphor.

Shortly before Ahmed took to Twitter to share that shocking discovery at the check-in counter, Khan and his wife were also discovering why their then 18-month-old son Sebastian was always getting held up at check in.

Khan said the family has been facing delays at airports since his son was just weeks old. They would frequently get told it was just a "booking error."

The first time it happened, you think 'this can't be real.'

He said this trend would continue for about 18 months. No online check in. Delays at the airport. A "different variation" of the booking error excuse. And so on.

"We were basically kept in the dark," he said.

This all changed after a "sympathetic" airline representative took the family aside and explained what was really going on. Little Sebastian in the car seat was on Canada's no-fly list.

"The first time it happened, you think 'this can't be real' and [have a] feeling of incredulousness and disbelief," Khan said.

"Even though it's a mistake, they're being cast in a negative light. They're being compared to somebody who is a threat to aviation security."

After Khan saw Ahmed's tweet and realized his family's story was not entirely unique, he reached out. So did others.

Submitted
Zamir Khan said his son Sebastian was just six weeks old the first time he was mistakenly flagged on the no-fly list.

Eventually a Justice League of parents, frustrated and confused by all the times their children have been held back at airports simply because of their names, was formed and branded No Fly List Kids (NFLK).

The grassroots group represents about 200 families across the country. Its mission: To get the Canadian government to introduce a redress system that allows anyone falsely flagged on the no-fly list to get cleared once and for all.

For almost three years, the group's members — young and old — have been pushing politicians of all parties to fix the system that has been mistakenly identifying their children as potential threats.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press
Adam Ahmed, of Markham, Ont., poses for a photo on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Nov. 8, 2016. Ahmed has been repeatedly flagged at the airport because his name matches one on a security list.

The group's first push was in November 2017 when some of its member parents and children held the first-ever "Hill Day," a polite invasion of Parliament Hill aimed at getting MPs to commit, in writing, to support funding for a redress system.

NFLK got its first big win a few months later, when the government said it was committing almost $80 million in its 2018 budget to build that system.

"We thought that was it," Ahmed said. "But then we found out for them to actually build a redress system they have to push forward legislative changes."

The problem is that if the bill doesn't pass before the [next election], then we may have to start from zero again.

Those changes are sandwiched in a gargantuan national security omnibus bill, C-59, which is currently at second reading in the Senate.

That brought the group to Ottawa again earlier this week for its second "Hill Day."

This time, Ahmed and others were there to appeal to Senators and put a face and story to their cause.

And unlike the group's last visit to Parliament in 2017, Ahmed said, this had a bit more urgency — there was a sense of time running out.

"The problem is that if the bill doesn't pass before the [next election], then we may have to start from zero again," he said.

"There is a concern for families that we are running out of time. The government needs to get this done and they need to get it done now."

Khan, who wasn't present for this visit, emphasized that the group was not there to advocate for C-59 itself.

"To be clear, C-59 is a huge bill. There's a lot of things in it," he said. "The section that pertains to us is Section 6," which houses the promised redress system.

"It's one thing to read about an issue in an email, it's another to meet some of the kids and parents that are affected by it. To see that they're truly just everyday Canadians."

Submitted
Sarah Willson and her son Amin are pictured on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Sarah Willson joined NFLK earlier this summer after experiencing one particularly frustrating delay at an airport. Her three-year-old son Amin was flagged.

"Our main message [to senators] is that we're not legislative experts and that we've kind of been thrown into this omnibus bill, and this has been the only answer for fixing the [no-fly list]," Willson said.

"We just wanted to say ... we're just a bunch of parents volunteering our time and we all came out on our own dime. We're not asking for money. We just want our children off this list. We don't care how it's done, we just want it to happen."

The group spoke with senators from all political backgrounds, and they were all warm and receptive of the group's message, Ahmed said.

He says the premise of kids being mistakenly flagged as potential threats — for no reason other than their name — is one that is very easy to oppose.

"Doesn't matter if you're a right-wing hawk or a left-wing tree-hugger," Ahmed said. "Everyone is going to say that's ridiculous."

"Everyone's impacted. There are white kids impacted by this, too. Jewish, Italian, French, Chinese, Dutch, Polish, Muslim, Arab, Indian, Sikh, you name it. It's everybody."

The group is optimistic that the redress system will be funded, developed and eventually implemented by airlines. Ahmed, Khan and Willson said after three years of hard work, the group can't stop with its goal so close.

Even if you know it's a computer mistake, if it happens every time ... that's going to affect you.Zamir Khan

"We're not pointing figures at what happened in the past or who created it or any of that. We're beyond that. Where we're at now is just ... fix it. Guys, do the right thing and fix it," Ahmed said.

"We're not stopping. I think anyone who thinks we're stopping hasn't been paying attention."

To the group's members, fixing the no-fly list isn't a matter of eliminating pesky flight delays. It's a crucial step to make sure their kids — and anyone else affected by the issue — don't grow up feeling ostracized.

"Right now my son's cute," Willson said. "The people in the airport [know] it's clearly a mistake. But as you get older, it's extremely stigmatizing."

Khan said he doesn't want his son, who is just under five years old, to know why he was getting flagged all those times.

"Even if you know it's a computer mistake, if it happens every time ... that's going to affect you," he said.