Toronto·CBC Investigates

Canadian man once on U.S. no-fly list no longer 'trapped' in Canada

A Whitby, Ont., man has arrived in Pakistan, thrilled to apparently be off a U.S. no-fly list after being unable to leave Canada for the past three years.

'The best present I could ever receive,' Omer Qureshi told CBC News after he was finally cleared to fly

Omer Qureshi has tried twice to fly overseas since 2013. Each time he was denied a boarding pass and sent home after airline employees told him his name appeared on a U.S. no-fly list. (CBC)

A Whitby, Ont., man has arrived in Pakistan, thrilled to apparently be off a U.S. no-fly list after being unable to leave Canada for the past three years.

Omer Qureshi had tried twice to fly overseas since 2013. Each time he was denied a boarding pass and sent home after airline employees told him his name appeared on a U.S. no-fly list. 

All that changed Thursday evening as he boarded a 13-hour flight from Pearson International Airport to Islamabad. Qureshi's eyes lit up and he pumped his fists in excitement as the ticket agent checked his baggage and handed him a boarding pass.

"I don't have words right now, I don't have any words right now," an elated Qureshi told CBC News moments after being cleared to fly. "I can't express my feelings right now, I can't." 
An undated snapshot of Omer Qureshi and his family when they all lived in Canada. He sent his wife and children to live in Pakistan out of fear that they too would end up on a no-fly list and be trapped in this country. Qureshi flew to Pakistan Thursday night to be reunited with them. (Qureshi family)

An hour earlier, the owner of a home maintenance business stood in his Whitby townhouse anxiously packing his suitcases, wondering when he would see his wife, extended family and three children in Pakistan again. 

"I'm really nervous, because I have no idea what's going to happen. I have big hopes this time, though," he told the CBC's John Lancaster.

Did business rival falsely report him?

Qureshi's travel problems began in 2013 when he tried to board a Pakistan International Airlines flight from Toronto to Islamabad.  At the time, a representative from the airline told Qureshi he was on a U.S. no-fly list. The following year Qureshi was prevented from boarding a Saudi Arabian Airlines flight for a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The list, maintained by the FBI's Terrorist Screening Center, is supposed to contain the "identity information of known or suspected terrorists." People on the list are "prevented from boarding an aircraft when flying within, to, from and over the United States," according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. 

At the time, Qureshi had permanent resident status in Canada. He believes a business competitor falsely reported to the RCMP that Qureshi was making bombs, something he denies. Yet he says the allegation was enough to get him on the U.S. no-fly list and delay his citizenship application.

However in February, Qureshi was cleared to take his citizenship oath and two weeks ago was issued a Canadian passport. It appears that U.S. officials have also removed his name from the no-fly list, although he is still awaiting confirmation from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Canadian government could do little to help

Officially, the Canadian government has told Qureshi it could do little to assist him. On March 14, 2016, Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale wrote to Qureshi's MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes. 

"I have heard the concerns of those who encounter these issues, and how this situation can cause confusion and feelings of stigmatization," Goodale wrote. "However, the U.S. has the legal right to determine who enters its border and can therefore impose security requirements on flights that are destined for, originate from, or overfly its territory. I encourage Mr. Qureshi to continue his appeal process with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Travelers Redress Inquiry Program."

But unofficially it appears government officials were working on Qureshi's behalf. 

Newly elected Mississauga-Erin Mills MP Iqra Khalid was one of them, she told CBC News:

"We've now had involvement from multiple MPs who've really been trying to help him in this case and also from the Ministry (of Public Safety)."  She added: "We have had somewhat of a confirmation, albeit verbal, that his name is no longer on the US no fly list."

Mississauga-Erin Mills MP Iqra Khalid said a working group has been struck between Canadian and U.S. officials to co-ordinate the two countries' no-fly lists. 'It’s a system that needs to be cleaned up,' she said. (CBC)

There may be hope for other Canadians mistakenly placed on the list, too. CBC News has learned federal officials and their U.S. counterparts have agreed to strike a working group to deal with the issue.  Dozens of Canadians have come forward, including parents of infants, all claiming to incorrectly be on the Canadian or American no-fly lists.

A statement sent to CBC News from a Public Safety Ministry spokesperson said the "Canada-US Redress Working Group" will be formed in the coming months to correct errors on the list and help in situations "where individuals experience delays due to similarities between their name and that of a person on a "no-fly" list."‎

System 'needs to be cleaned up'

Khalid said: "It's a system that needs to be cleaned up," and added "we've acknowledged the problem and have decided to take action with this working group to see how we can fix the problem and make sure people are not going through the same thing."

At Pearson International Airport last evening, Qureshi called Khalid's office to thank her for intervening in his case. "She's the one who helped me," he said. "She's a lifesaver to me."

Qureshi's wife and three young children — then aged 18 months, 3 and 7 — were also briefly on the U.S. list, which they discovered in 2014 when they were not allowed to board a flight to Florida to visit Walt Disney World. 

Qureshi applied to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Traveler Redress Inquiry Program to have all this family members' names removed, and his wife and children's names were taken off the list. 

Last August, his wife and Canadian-born children all returned to live in Pakistan indefinitely, out of fear their names might be put back on the the U.S. no-fly list, which would essentially bar them from leaving Canada, too. 
'I don’t have words right now, I don’t have any words right now” an elated Omer Qureshi told CBC News moments after being cleared to fly. 'I can’t express my feelings right now, I can’t.' (CBC)

Qureshi called his wife from Pearson to let her know they would soon be reunited and able to return to Canada together. He's also in Pakistan celebrating his father's birthday. 

"That's the best present I could ever receive," he told CBC News.


If you have any information on this story or any other that you want investigated contact John Lancaster.

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