PROFILING AND DISCRIMINATION AT THE UN HQ BY US SECRET SERVICE.
By Isaac Mwaura
I am here feeling very
awful about an incident that has happened 3 times at the United Nations Headquarters. I have mulled about talking about it and have struggled a lot, but as Martin Luther King Jr said “our lives begin to end when we keep silent about things that matter”.
So while back at home my social media team uses a wrong photo for a #Tbt that I only came to learn about 7 hrs later, and social media bloggers cannot have enough of it, here in New York, where am attending the UN General Assembly for the first time, something even more bizarre has happened.
On Wednesday, I was busy rushing to take my seat at a Kenyan side event on Peace, organized by our permanent mission here and the ministry of foreign affairs. True to it, I get in to the building and check in at the security. I do the usual stuff of emptying my pockets, then I go through the machine and they do a body search. Then am told to step aside and am kept waiting for over 30 minutes. The secret serving agents ask for my ID and by this time, they have picked my entry card. I give them my national ID and NHIF card as further proof of my identity. They tell me that they are looking for someone who fits my description and then they go like, the photo is for the same person but the names don’t match. By now I ask them why they are questioning. me. They say that there is someone who looks like me who is walking around with ‘a screw driver’. I am like seriously!!! In the US people are allowed to own and carry guns, and here we are talking of a screw driver? By this time I feel profiled and discriminated upon on the basis of both albinism and racial Origin. I wonder loudly that this cannot be happening at the UN headquarters, the home of the universal bill of rights. By now they are embarrassed. I offer to leave but they refuse to let me go. The white men now call a black guy who helps to calm the situation. He takes me to his office in some basement and introduces himself as Eric. He hands over his card to me and I give him mine. He is Eric Bramwell, Lieutenant, Officer in charge of Investigative Unit, Security and Safety Service. So by this time he offers to take me to my next assignment, listening to H.E President Uhuru Kenyatta as he delivers his address to the UN General Assembly. I don’t have my access card still and Eric calls to ask if anyone was left with it. Then all
of a sudden, out of the blues, he fishes it out of his pocket in a rather embarrassing manner. So he takes me to the GA hall but I opt to first get into the Kenyan side event, after bumping in to Nairobi Senator, Johnson Sakaja, who I hadn’t met earlier on. This is seems to give Eric some validity about my identity. So I get in there and meet with PS Macharia Kamau, Monica Jum, minister for foreign affairs and Kenyan ambassador to the AU. We discuss how Kenya can take up the role of the African Union Special Envoy on albinism, a position that I helped push under the mandate of I.K. Ero, the UN independent Expert on the enjoyment of the rights of persons with albinism. The latter is a position that was established by the UN itself in order to deal with gross human rights violations against us after the wave of killings witnessed in many places especially in Africa.
Soon after, I join my parliamentary colleagues briefly, before we are ushered in to the GA plenary hall. As I get in and other Kenyans rush to say hi, I am pulled aside by Eric, who now refers to me as Senator Dr. He is with the head of security at the UN Mr Kevin O Hanlon who has come to apologize in person. He explains that it wasn’t his team that did it but the secret service agents. I leave the matter to rest.
At the podium, it’s the turn of President of Guatemala, who is railing the UN system, for various acts of omission and commission in his country. Next is Kenyan turn and our President delivers a compelling speech that receives rare applause as compared to other presidents. We walk out and say hi to him. He invites us to a private meeting later on. As this is happening, the Kenyan Ambassador to the UN Hon Lazarus Ameyo walks up to me and informs me that he has received an apology from the UN about what had happened.
Later on at the entrance of the venue of our meeting with the President, Hotel Latte, my other colleagues are ushered in while get questioned. The secret service takes my card again while others start taking photos of me secretly with their phones. When I see them, I say a cheeky hi to them. My colleagues have to explain again that I am senator from Kenya, when one of the asks ‘who is this guy?’ As if that is not enough, a secret service agent follows us up into the lift while looking at me suspiciously. So when the President finally comes in, he asks me if am Al shabaab, Mujaheden or the Chairman of the National Riffles Association ( NRA). I explain to him that ‘those people really harassed me’. We let the matter lie and continue with our meeting.
So yesterday I tried accessing my hotel on 51st street and gave my UN accreditation card at the checkpoint. I was again stopped and told to step aside!!! The calls were made once again and the whole process began all over, this being the 3rd time. I couldn’t take it anymore!!! I reminded the secret service agent that he himself was a person of color and that I was a senator from Kenya. He was rude to asking me if I was a US senator. I told him he wasn’t the most important security agent and that he should step aside. Anyway I was allowed in after a state house official found me at the entrance and explained to them that I am a senator from Kenya. On my way out, I meet Mutahi Ngunyi, the Kenyan Political Science Professor and we had a chat. Again this seemed to give the secret service validity about my presence. So in my mind I think to myself, I am not good enough to be believable right? That I can only get validation from other people? More-so, the explanations given about screw drivers didn’t add up. I tried asking the secret service agents, this time two women who had come to talk to me to show me the photo of the person that they were looking for but they didn’t have one!!! To them, it was just someone with albinism, and so I fitted their description and who allegedly, kept on following some unknown king. I told them that by now they should have circulated my image so that their system could differentiate between myself and their supposed target. It was at that point that one of them took a photo of my card.
I later on saw an apology via whatssup by the US ambassador to Kenya Amb Kyle, Mcarter. He had sent it to me before the but the 3rd incident had taken place.
You know, a good number of western movies cast persons with Albinism, as villains, with pale white skin and red eyes, with dangerous supernatural powers. So in the subconscious of these white secret agents, I was a typical representation of such a villain!!! , one description, fits all ‘albinos. To them, anyone who looked like me was more dangerous as long as he was walking around with a screw driver to harm any of the 157 heads of states/govts, of which 15 of those were high targets.
So Here I was at the UN HQ itself where only in June this year, an idea that I birthed last year at the same venue, came to be, that of celebrating the International Albinism Awareness Day on 13th June at the UN itself for the first time in the history of the 74 year body!! The celebrations attracted the biggest ever at the UN.
As a result, my image is pinned on the cover page of the authoritative global magazine, Albinism Insight, and my speech is quoted in there as a key highlight of the event. I was rallying my fellow PWAs to rise to the occasion, extolling the fact that Albinism will always be ‘thrown at them’ for their success or failure. That we suffer because of ‘in-between’s’ since we are white but not white enough, black but not black enough, disabled but not disabled enough. In the speech, I emphasized the need for self definition in order for us not to see ourselves from our own lenses and not from those of others who want to define us as they see us.
So later on I am able get my way back to 51st street, and hold a meeting my friend Jennifer Renee, a member of the African American Albinism Awareness Association (AAAAA). I had met her earlier on in June, during a campaign dubbed ‘colorful’, which was organized by the New York Dermatology Group (NYDG), together Diandra Forest, the famous African American model with albinism. Renee goes ahead to narrate to me how it was hard to grow up as a PWA In a predominantly black society in America, and how her peers used to joke that she wanted to be a black girl, yet she is white, and how her brother, who speaks proper English better than her, had white friends, and which was in contrast to her and her many black friends!!! She explained to me in detail,how it’s hard for her to find work since she is legally blind, and how her children were taken away from her ostensibly because she could put them in danger due to her low vision!!! Raymond Forest, a brother Diandra, was employed as a security adviser, was forced to hide every time some certain lady walked in to the office, because she was scared of him. Can you imagine!!! that feeling of unwantedness, illegitimacy, and the coercion to apologize for just being there!!!
So yes, currently, I could be the only and most visible senator and legislator with Albinism in the whole world, thanks be to GOD, the Constitution of Kenya 2010, my advocacy for our rights and the pursuit of politics as the art of the possible; coupled with the tutelage of patriarchs such Anyang’ Nyong’o, Raila Odinga and Uhuru Kenyatta. Connected by a dream to make change in order to create space and awareness through film and the arts, through by Lupita Nyong’o’s In My Genes-documentary, where I feature as an aspiring politician, the battle is yet to be conquered. However, no matter the daunting task, our dreams are valid!!!!
Africa, a continent that suffered slavery and discrimination, a land that has witnessed the killings of over 600 of its sons and daughters with albinism, most of them women and children in over 29 countries and counting, Africa, where some witch-doctors and false prophets have duped many people that our body parts can make them rich! Africa must rise to demonstrate to the World that people who look like myself, can have a seat at the table. That instead of being turned away at the gates of the UN General Assembly, and Hotel palaces of Kings and heads of govts, they shall one day occupy such places address gatherings and deliver speeches. That they shall have validity to inspire others to attain the highest possible ideals of human excellence’s and endeavors, so that no child born today shall be stopped 3 times at the gates of decision making and opportunities, because they were seen to be less deserving, to affirm to world that even them, their dreams are valid!!
As Nelson Mandela said, “when you climb one hill, you realize that there are several others to climb”.
Martin Luther King Jr dream of the day black little boys would hold hands with white little girls. He possibly never imagined about the discrimination of persons with albinism, a people born white , who who are treated the same’ no matter their race, religions ethnic origin. In the business of cherry picking, they are left out as the bad ones!!
To those out there who are struggling with a sense of belonging, I want to tell you that, Many times we doubt whether we can rise to the occasion when called upon, but If we can be, we shall be, and if we are to be, we will be..”
The writer is the first MP and Senator with albinism in Kenya and Chairman of the Albinism
Society of KENYA