DUBAI: With his sun-kissed beard, tattooed arms and white skin, Raymond Cecil Kastner aka Mohammad Zubair is an oddity in the labour accommodation of Muhaisnah.
Until 2013, the American was racing motorbikes in his hometown Houston. Today, the 43-year-old is living like a pauper in a cramped labour camp and looking for work after being allegedly barred from entering his country and disowned by his family for converting to Islam from Christianity.
Yet his faith remains unflinching. “Allah puts people in difficulties to test their resolve,” says Zubair, who landed in the UAE in December 2015 following a bizarre turn of events, with just a little over Dh100 in his pocket.
Hungry and homeless, he was loitering on the streets of Ajman when a truck driver from Pakistan found him and took him to his labour camp, which the Texan now shares with five other truckers. The men don’t understand his language, yet they’ve struck an unlikely bond with their newfound white friend.
Zubair claims he cannot return home as the US has banned his entry on mere suspicion because he spent over one year in Turkey before flying to the UAE.
“Now I am in this ridiculous situation where I can’t go back to my own country,” says the graphic design graduate, who claims he was not allowed to board a flight to his country from Turkey last year.
“My mother was very ill. Desperate to meet her I booked an air ticket to Houston for April 7 but was stopped from getting on the plane at Ataturk airport. A high ranking Turkish official told me that I cannot step on US soil as the country had banned my entry. I was shocked because I’ve always been a law-abiding citizen. Later I found out that federal agents visited my house. Just because I embraced Islam and lived in Turkey, they suspect I’ve become a terrorist. On this flimsy ground, they didn’t let me back in my country. I am too scared to go to my embassy to clear my name or try returning home because I don’t know what they will do. I would rather rough it out here in the UAE,” said Zubair.
An information officer at the US embassy in Abu Dhabi said they cannot answer inquiries about American citizens due to the country’s privacy laws but an agency of the US Department of Homeland Security confirmed that an American citizen can be stopped from getting on a plane. In response to an XPRESS query on whether a US citizen by birth can be denied entry into the US, Mike England, national spokesperson, Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said: “If you’re asking whether or not an American citizen can be prevented from boarding a flight, then the answer is yes. Anyone on the no-fly list can be prevented from boarding a flight, regardless of their citizenship status.”
Jennifer Evanitksy, spokesperson of the US Customs and Border Protection (CBD), the largest federal law enforcement agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security, said they “don’t deny entry to US citizena who presents themsleves at a port of entry”.
However, it didn’t say how someone like Zubair would reach the port of entry if he’s on a no-fly list. The no-fly list is maintained by the US government’s Terrorist Screening Centre (TSC) and contains names of people who are prohibited from boarding a commercial aircraft for travel in or out of the US.
Victim of stereotyping
Zubair, who left the US in 2013 after embracing Islam earlier that year, said he was a victim of stereotyping. He said even the UK denied him entry because of his appearance.
“My friends and relatives in the US had stopped talking to me so I decided to move out. I wanted to enrol at Makkah’s Umm Al-Qura University and learn more about Islam, but some fellow Muslims in the UK suggested I spend some time with them. I took a Turkish Airlines flight to Manchester via Istanbul. On October 14, 2013, I flew into Istanbul where I had a 16-hour stopover. The next day I reached Manchester, but wasn’t allowed out of the airport. Instead, I was detained and questioned because of my beard and dress. I tried to reason with the authorities, but they wouldn’t listen and put me on the next flight back to Turkey,” he recalled.
Zubair said he shelved his Makkah plans and decided to stay back in Istanbul after being told that he didn’t meet Umm Al-Qura University’s age criteria.
“I took a one-year residence visa and found work in a jewellery store. The prospect of never seeing my country left me devastated but I put the setback behind me and prepared to start life afresh after landing an English teacher’s job at an Istanbul college in August 2015.”
“The pay was good and I was happy but since I had overstayed my Turkey visa I was asked to exit the country for at least 24 hours.
“I took my camera, packed an extra set of clothes and flew to Cyprus on August 26. Since I was hoping to be back the following day, I carried very little money.”
That day never came. When Zubair tried returning on August 27, he was told he cannot enter Turkey as he had been slapped with a one-year overstaying ban.
“As it turned out, I remained stuck in Cyprus for three-and-a half months. I slept in parks and survived on dates that fell from the trees. Often, I had to make do with just water. One day I got bitten by a dog on my leg and my last $10 were spent on antibiotics.
“By December it had got cold and I was struggling. Around this time, I met some Palestinians who said they could help me get a job in Dubai. So I sold my expensive camera and flew to the UAE on December 17. I was put up in a shared apartment in Ajman and asked to do a freelancing sales job. But again I was cheated. When I asked for my commission, they threw me out. I was on the streets when a truck driver found and sheltered me.
Between doing monthly visa runs to Oman, Zubair has knocked on several doors looking for work but he has had no luck so far.
In his last job interview, an Arab man sized him up and asked: “Why are you dressed in a kandoura? It’s not professional.”