July 27, 2020

D.C. teen launches venture to inform student travelers after his own stressful airport experience

Returning home from an international trip with fellow students, Nedim Yusuf was separated from his group by U.S. Customs agents. Now, the rising high school senior is turning the experience into something positive.

Nedim Yusuf, pictured in the front row at right, joined a student exchange program through LearnServe International. Upon returning home from South Africa (where they visited one of Nelson Mandela's homes, pictured), Nedim was stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol and held for questioning. The experience led him to launch a website to help other young travelers.

Imagine returning home from your very first trip abroad without your family. You had a great time but you’re excited to get home. Just as you are going through customs, you are stopped and separated from your group and forced to wait in a room for hours on end with no connection to the outside world—all because of your name.

That was me. I’m the oldest child of immigrants from Ethiopia and a Muslim; two parts of my identity that I would have never thought would lead me here. Living in a bubble, I had been surrounded by an empowering community but with that experience, my bubble just burst. Never wishing this encounter on anyone, my mission is to spread awareness of racial profiling when traveling abroad—especially for students traveling alone and for the first time.

My experience abroad with LearnServe International to South Africa was great! By living with host families, speaking with various South Africans, and working with different youth community organizations, I learned a lot and developed meaningful bonds. The trip broadened my knowledge of issues in my native Washington, D.C., to a more global perspective.

[Read more from LearnServe: An emerging social changemaker on lessons learned in the field ]

Sadly, thoughts of my culturally enlightening experience faded when I exited the final plane of my trip and was stopped at customs. I was a bit confused when the customs agent asked if I had filled out a U.S. re-entry form since none were provided on the plane and no one else in my group had completed a form. I was only left with the assumption that no one on the plane had filled one out either.

When my passport was taken, I was escorted to a separate room, away from everyone else in my group, leaving my carry-on bags near the entrance. The agents then took me to a row of benches on the opposite side of the room where I waited for 30 minutes, looking at tiny televisions that hung from the ceiling. Finally, my mother called and shared that she, my family and other parents from our group were all waiting—everyone else had already claimed their luggage and were ready to go home. I had been gone now for a long time and by now everyone was worried.

While speaking with my mother, one of the officers said I was not allowed to speak to anyone and told me to immediately put the phone away. Although I, a minor, explained that I was talking to my mother, none of that mattered—he stood in front of me to make sure that I said goodbye and hung up. More time passed before one of my group’s trip leaders came into the room and waited with me. As the hours passed, I saw other travelers come and go while I waited.

I hope to build a sense of community so other students know that they are not alone—there are others out there with similar experiences.

From where I sat, I saw my passport being moved around onto a tray of documents slowly getting closer, only to be taken to another room. An officer called me up to a booth, and with the trip leader by my side, I was asked questions verifying my home address and whether I brought with me a large sum of money. Even more confused than before, my trip leader asked the officer why I was singled out of our group to be questioned, to which he responded that the decision was computer-generated based on my name. I will never forget those words. Nervousness and confusion immediately flipped into shock, anger, and annoyance. We completed the U.S. re-entry form and left.

While my family waited hours for me to emerge, I missed saying goodbye to my travel group and I had to explain to my parents that I was singled out because of the name that they gave me. As we finally exited, there was a touch-screen kiosk prompting passengers to touch different faces (reflecting their experience) ranging from a smiley green face to an angry red face. I have never clicked a button so fast in my life, but I wanted to do more.

Returning to the LearnServe’s Fellows program, I had an extreme motivation to make sure that no other person traveling would endure the experience that I did. Thanks to LearnServe, I know I have a voice. I was able to create a website where I can do more. My newly designed website, The Marginalized Experience, will give student travelers access to an ever-evolving guide of resources for situations when going through U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The resources inform and empower students if they’re stopped for a secondary screening and the website includes an option to submit and post their experiences.

I hope to build a sense of community so other students know that they are not alone—there are others out there with similar experiences. With plans to expand the website to include resources to support minority youth in navigating other racial issues, I welcome partnerships with local and national social justice organizations.

Learnserve fellow Nedim Yusuf

Nedim Yusuf


Nedim Yusuf is a rising senior at School Without Walls in Washington, D.C. He was a LearnServe Fellow in 2018. He traveled to South Africa with the LearnServe Abroad program in the summer of 2019 and returned to the LearnServe Fellows program for a second year in the fall of 2019. Nedim loves coding and is passionate about studying all sciences, especially astrophysics and microbiology.
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