‘That is exactly how many Guyanese feel when going through the T&T airport—sub-human, degraded and embarrassed. How much longer will this be allowed?’

In August 2010, I was going through Customs in the Piarco International Airport in Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago as I switched from an American Airlines flight to a Caribbean Airlines flight to continue on to Guyana. As I stood in line with my husband, I watched as a customs officer verbally insulted some young ladies from Guyana, yelling at them and treating them like they were animals.

He then worked his way over to the customs officer who was checking our documentation and, with a look of disgust, said, “Guyanese!” He spat it more than said it. I was furious.
From that point on, I have never flown through T&T again. The extremely poor customer service by Caribbean Airlines compounded this unpleasantness and made my decision all the easier. Since that time, I have always flown Delta direct from JKF Airport in New York into Guyana. Why would I fly through a country that treats Guyanese with such hostility?
I have heard and read of other horror stories from Guyanese about such treatment in T&T, confirming that what I saw with my own eyes was not a one-time incident of a customs officer who might have been having a bad day. However, a story I was made aware of this week is even more shocking.

Three women, a mother and her two daughters, were traveling from the U.S. to T&T on June 20 when there was a confrontation with yet another rude customs officer, who insinuated that these women must be illiterate, after they asked for guidance to access declaration forms despite signs around the airport.

20130622stellaThis is according to a blog by one of the daughters, Tameka Vasquez, who said she voiced her displeasure at the rudeness of the customs officer then stepped out of the way and instructed her mother to do the same. It was at this point that Tameka says another plain-clothes officer who did not identify himself, physically assaulted her.

In fact, her mother tried to stop the officer, as she thought him instead to be a robber or a crazy man assaulting her daughter. According to Tameka’s blog, “…My sister and my mother… were inappropriately grabbed by other male officers, and I was taken away by the arms, by another plain clothes officer, who screamed in my face over and over ‘what right do you have to talk to a man that way?’”

After being held for eight hours, the women were then told they were under arrest for the assault of three on-duty officers. The officer who assaulted Tameka was asked for a statement and was let go with no punishment for his actions. Tameka’s blog says, “We were taken out of the airport in front of the public, in handcuffs, surrounded by guards. We were put in handcuffs, placed in a police station, where fingerprints were taken and all personal items were taken.”

Once in court, the women were told that the federal charges being brought against them could result in a prison sentencing of 6 months and fines for each charge totaling TT$13,500 (about GY$421,500). They were provided with a court date of July 19, given bail and told not to leave the country. There had been no movement on the case at the time of writing this column.

A June 26 Trinidad Express article detailing the incident included this piece of information: “The Express was also told by the police that all three women were originally from Guyana, prior to migrating to the United States.” Ah! Now we learn what their real crime was. It was being Guyanese.

This statement says so much. It seems that simply because these women “were originally from Guyana,” they must be guilty, much in the same way that Trayvon Martin must have been guilty simply because he was a black boy.

Since they were released on bail, the women have been staying with a relative. The mother is the sole breadwinner for the family after the father lost his job in the recession and since she is not working, their bills are piling up and they are in peril of losing their house.

Some students from Tameka’s college are trying to raise money for legal bills and there is an online petition calling for justice. The women have been in this situation now for 38 days, relying on their relatives to take care of them while they try to prove their innocence. It seems there is a videotape of the incident that prosecutors cannot seem to produce. This video would prove the guilt or innocence of these three women.

I acknowledge that my rendering of this story is one-sided and that is on purpose. The other side of the story has been told. It is time for the world to hear what these women say happened. I do not find their side of the story at all impossible. In fact, having seen the maltreatment of Guyanese in the Piarco airport with my own eyes, I find it quite probable.
I am a woman who travels alone quite frequently. There are times I also travel with my mother-in-law and sister-in-law (both originally from Guyana). Is this what we are to expect in the T&T airport? Thanks in large part to a ridiculous snafu between the Guyana government and Delta, we now have no choice but to use dreaded Caribbean Airlines since Delta has stopped its service – and Caribbean Airlines travels through the dreaded T&T on its way to Guyana.

In Tameka’s words from her blog, “There was something about seeing my mother and sister, in handcuffs that just broke me down. Every time I close my eyes, it’s just flashing back to that moment where we were brought in to see one another, in handcuffs…We feel sub-human. We feel so degraded and so embarrassed.”

That is exactly how many Guyanese feel when going through the T&T airport—sub-human, degraded and embarrassed. How much longer will this be allowed?

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