Elation was surging through my bones. I had that thrill that always comes with the start of a new journey, a new love, a new adventure. I was leaving Toronto for my first job, teaching ESL in Jakarta. On the way, I was busing to see my cousin in Cincinatti, who was doing his M.D./Ph.D. He’s a hard partying genius who loves “discussing” great topics. This, of course, means really vicious verbal feuds, which for Iranians is totally normal with close friends. I was also feeling rather smug about the deal I got, since flying out of Toronto can be much pricier than flying out of O’Hare, the renowned global hub of air travel.
(Pic by Lee-Anne Bigwood)
At the border, everyone got off for the routine formalities. When my turn came, they told me to sit down and wait. This was ominous. The other travellers just got back on the bus and the only other person waiting with me was an older black gentleman. This was a bad sign.
As I sat there, waiting patiently and inwardly laughing at the foolishness of bureaucracy, I casually observed others going through the motions with the US border guards. It all seemed rather banal. Then two young blonde girls came around. No passports. Coming from or going to a Football game; memory obscures which. ID? Only their college issued STUDENT CARDS!
Roughly two hours later, the border guard, a typical cop-looking guy (tall, well built but not muscular) called me over. The only thing marring his utterly forgettable features were his eyes. They were looking off dramatically, attending to a different event than his conscious mind. He asked me for a few more details and then escorted me to the back.
The back. Whatever was at the back, I knew that it was generally best to be avoided. He calmly told me not to make any movements as he was going to perform a search. I started getting anxious. Not due to anything I was hiding, but due to the calmness of his voice. It was like he was placating a docile but wild beast. A tiger recently fed. It was creepy. I had suddenly become a beast.
To put it in perspective, I am a pretty short guy, skinny to boot, and I know for certain that I never come off as threatening. Yet here I was; the beast. The danger now was that if I did happen to do something unconsciously (scratch my back, adjust my balls) I might get tazed, beat up, even shot. After being searched he took digital scans of all my fingers, a photo and a retinal scan. Then I was told I wouldn’t be getting on my bus. Up until this point, I hadn’t seriously thought this would impede me in anyway. But in fact, my great odyssey was over before it had even begun, and the worse was yet to come.
The border guards asked me a few more questions at the front counter, where the non-terrorists were processed, and I was then put on a bus back to “my” side of the border. The use of the possessive when referring to Canada was something I took for granted prior to this, but what was about to happen would call into question my use of this grammatical and by extension, mental construct. On the Canadian side, I was met by a CBSA (Canada Border Services Agency) officer waiting as I exited the bus. I thought to myself “What a relief! I won’t need to wait in line just to go back.” I should quickly point out my emotional state at this juncture: pretty annoyed, but trying to grin and bear the ridiculousness of post-9/11 American hypocrisy. Being back with sane Canadians was a comfort. The CBSA officer knew my name and asked me to follow him. I was taken down a few corridors, signed some kind of document (mostly asking for my basic details), then suddenly I was asked to put my belt, shoe laces and personal effects into a zip lock bag. I was being detained.
The cell was gray. Temperature-wise, it wasn’t cold, but it had that institutional coldness of being too sterile. They asked me if I needed anything and proceeded to tell me that there was an outstanding warrant for me out of Toronto. I don’t even know how to describe the feeling at this point, but if you ever see an innocent person accused of something who seems to overreact, don’t hold that against them. I asked why and was told it was for SEXUAL ASSAULT. This is the type of charge that leaves a person ruined, even if they are found innocent. Everyone around them will always be left with that lingering doubt. Maybe they actually DID do it? I tried to think back to every girl I had ever kissed, made out with, tried to chat up. I cried. I panicked. After languishing in the cell for a few hours, I was told to report to Metro Police, but that I wasn’t considered a flight risk and as such was to be released… out into the crisp fall air of Windsor at 3am.
When I got back to Toronto, I knew I had to report to the police. As I made my way to 53 Division (I figured they were close to Forest Hill so they might be nicer than the jaded blue boys of 13 Division), I imagined never seeing my family from the outside again, I considered stopping for my last free taste of a donut or bowl of pho. When I got to the station, I entered, awash in terror. I approached the front desk with the steps of a man beyond hope. I gave them my name. They replied “Well, we don’t have anything about you in the system, so I don’t know what to do.” “Can I leave?” My last interaction with the system “I guess so.”
We often feel protected, shielded from all the evils of this world by our nations; especially in a developed, prosperous country like Canada. This becomes even more true for those of us who have never been forced to interact with the criminal justice system. My experience made me realize how fragile my position in the world really is.
Yes, I know the government didn’t technically break any rules. I’m not even that angry at the U.S., it is their prerogative to turn away whomever they wish. It is the Canadian government I feel betrayed by. Lied to, incarcerated, and finally discarded in a strange town in the wee hours of the morning. None of those things constitute breaking the rules.
Isn’t that, in itself, damning enough?