Whitby, Ont., man separated from wife, kids in Pakistan due to no-fly list
'It's an unfair burden to carry as a passenger,' Omer Qureshi says
A permanent resident of Canada with Pakistani origins says he must live without his wife and children because he is on a U.S. no-fly list and cannot leave his adopted country.
- Canada's no-fly list is 'very mysterious' and leaves targets little recourse, say critics
- Markham boy, 6, on no-fly list, parents say
Omer Qureshi has lived in Canada for 16 years. He employs dozens of Canadians at his duct-cleaning business, pays his taxes and has never had any trouble with the law.
Yet the Whitby, Ont., businessman says he has been told he might never be allowed to leave the country again, because the U.S. government mistakenly placed him on its no-fly list.
"I am from Canada, but I have ties to Pakistan, too," he said. "My sister's getting married, I can't go. Somebody gets sick, I can't go there."
Nor can he visit his wife and three Canadian-born children.
Although the children had grown up in Canada, they too were briefly flagged as security threats. After their names were removed, Qureshi sent the family back to Pakistan in August of last year, because he feared they might be returned to the list, he said.
Trapped in Canada
His troubles began in 2012 when he tried to board a flight from Toronto to Islamabad, Pakistan, where he had family and a business.
But he says an airline agent told him "the U.S. put your name on a no-fly list." That was repeated two days later when he tried to board another flight.
He says he believes his name was put on the list because a business competitor told the RCMP he was manufacturing bomb vests — something Qureshi denies.
Ever since, he's been trapped in Canada, he says.
It's almost a joke. The three-year-old? We're changing his diapers and, you know, he's a threat?- Omer Qureshi, Whitby, Ont., businessman on no-fly list
He even tried booking a flight overseas from Edmonton, which wouldn't travel through U.S. airspace, but it didn't work.
Qureshi says he feels Ottawa has allowed the U.S. to dictate which Canadians have the right to leave.
"Is Canada an independent country or the 53rd state?" he asked. "Do we have to ask Mr. Obama, 'Can this guy fly or can that guy fly?'"
After several failed travel attempts, Qureshi abandoned his business in Pakistan, he says.
The problems got worse in December 2014 when his wife Rabia and their children — aged 18 months, three and seven — tried to take a trip to Walt Disney World. They were all denied boarding passes and told they were also on the no-fly list, Qureshi says. The family cancelled the trip, losing out on $5,000 spent on flights and hotels.
"It's almost a joke," Qureshi says, referring to his children. "The three-year-old? We're changing his diapers and, you know, he's a threat?"
Qureshi has applied to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Traveler Redress Inquiry Program to have himself and his family removed from the list.
Last March, his wife and three kids were taken off the list. Qureshi's application was denied in December 2014, but he immediately appealed the decision.
As part of that appeal, Qureshi had to submit old addresses, landlords, references, employment information and details about his family. He can also provide "supporting documents that demonstrate [he] does not pose a security threat."
Before coming to Canada, Qureshi successfully completed the background checks required for permanent residency and recently cleared everything needed to become a Canadian citizen. He says the RCMP Integrated National Security Enforcement Team has also told him he poses no security threat.
Qureshi says he met with his MP Celina Caesar-Chavannes who has promised to send his case to the federal public safety minister for review.
Sami Khan also recently wrote to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale. The Toronto man holds a senior position within the Ontario government, but has been flagged by Canada's Passenger Protect Program for 10 years.
Unlike Qureshi, Khan can leave the country — but not without a great deal of hassle.
Since his high school days, he's been fingerprinted and his photographed when he travels to the U.S. He's also been detained for extra security checks when trying to return to Canada.
I suspect this is impacting more Canadians than have come forward.- Sami Khan, government employee, restricted traveller
Khan believes it's because someone with the same name appears to be a security threat. And he says he rarely travels anymore as a result of it.
"You're treated like a criminal and you're treated as being guilty until proven innocent," Khan says. "It's an unfair burden to to carry as a passenger.
"I suspect this is impacting more Canadians than have come forward."
The federal public safety department concedes that those with the same name as someone flagged under the Passenger Protect Program could be delayed when travelling.
"In order to alleviate any potential delays and inconveniences, passengers who have experienced problems in the past may want to contact the airline's customer service representative to explain their situation," a public safety spokeswoman wrote in a statement to CBC News.
Secure Air Travel Act
Unlike the American system, in Canada there is no redress for people whose names match someone else's on the domestic version of a no-fly list.
And lawyer Jack Gemmell said the new Secure Air Travel Act, part of Bill C-51, will make it impossible for someone to find out why they've been denied access to a flight.
"Unlike the Passenger Protect Program, which provided some form of notification to the person denied boarding for the reason, the [Act] expressly prohibits providing the person with the reason for the denial and made it an offence for the air carrier to do so," Gemmell wrote in an email."
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale issued a statement Thursday evening in response to recent stories about Canadians encountering travel problems due to no-fly lists and extra security screening.
"My department is ... exploring possible regulatory amendments to the Secure Air Travel Regulations that would help differentiate individuals who have similar or the same names as individuals listed under the Passenger Protect Program," Goodale said.
"Further to this, the government is committed to public consultations to ensure that our overall national security framework and procedures are effective in keeping Canadians safe, while also safeguarding our values ... These consultations will include the Passenger Protect Program."
Meanwhile, Qureshi has sold his home in Whitby and now lives alone in a rented basement apartment. He thinks of his wife and children surrounded by family in Pakistan.
"I miss them terribly," he said. "But I don't want them trapped like me."