At Sugar Creek Elementary School, he was selected by Normal Rotary as a student of the month. At Bloomington High, he played on the scholastic bowl team, was popular, easy-going, an Illinois State Scholar.
He is a computer geek, loves pro basketball, movies, is a TV buff. “It was criminal," he says, "to take both 'Law and Order’ and 'House’ off the air.”
The son of a State Farm employee, he qualified for a scholarship from the Bloomington-based company to attend Illinois State University and graduated, with honors.
Now 31, a software engineer, he works for one of the most successful technology companies on the planet — Google, in Mountain View, Calif.
He has no criminal record.
By all accounts, Sarmad Gilani is a model U.S. citizen.
But the other day, while at his job, a call came from a Google receptionist that two men were there to see him. One was a San Francisco police officer, the other a member of the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force.
It wasn't to chat about TV's kind of "Law & Order."
Flashing their IDs, Gilani says he was questioned, about travel experiences, acquaintances, terrorism, possible associations — for no other reason than one.
He is of Middle Eastern descent and a Muslim.
Welcome to 2017.
In the 1930s and 1940s, it was the Jews who were hunted.
In the 1950s, it was the Americans with alleged ties to Communism who became subjects of McCarthyism.
Today it's individuals like Gilani.
“When I got the message they wanted to see me, I joked that maybe it was over an unpaid parking ticket,” says Gilani.
You thought your experiences with flying these days were a hassle?
For "15 or 20 flights" in a row, Gilani says he's been pulled out of the airport security line to undergo "additional" screenings, have his bags swabbed for explosives, then to be interrogated, before being given “special clearance” to board the plane for which he paid to get a ticket.
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He is, as he puts it, "another member of the 'People Thrown Off A United Airlines Flight Club'” — without the headlines — given no reason why while “being embarrassingly escorted off as my fellow passengers gave me a suspicious look.”
On a recent trip to Canada, on his return, he says he was detained by U.S. border guards “for a few hours, as my belongings were all confiscated and searched."
Wanting to find out if there was something on his record that unknowingly made him guilty of something and/or a security risk, Gilani filed a Freedom of Information Act request.
That’s why federal agents came to see him at work, to talk about his FOIA request — and while there, also ask more questions.
Apparently, it is just not Gilani, either.
In the San Francisco area alone, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, more than 1,000 Muslims have been approached for no real reason, "other than blood line and religion."
For Americans like Gilani, being innocent today is a full-time job at proving you are not guilty.
When word of his encounter with agents at Google got around the San Francisco area, his story appeared in Global Nation, a publication that prints stories of multinational Americans and their challenges.
National Public Radio (NPR) picked it up.
It got broadcast worldwide.
Suddenly, Sarmad Gilani had become a poster boy.
Born in Houston, Gilani and his family moved to B-N when he was 4. In a community that has an organization entitled “Not In Our Town,” Gilani gives great credit to B-N (his mom and dad, Kanwal and Syed, still live in Normal, and a sister, with husband and children, live in Bloomington).
“When you interact with someone, it’s hard to stereotype them,” he says. “It helps dispel stereotypes that can evolve. In Bloomington, I just became part of the community and not 'that Muslim kid.’
“I visit B-N a few times each year to visit my family and it still has a certain charm I haven't seen anywhere else. (It’s a) perfect-sized town with a great community feel, and pretty much everything you want is local ... it also doesn't take 45 minutes to commute to work.”
He adds, “I had a great childhood there, and have many fond memories. (But) from my point of view, we’re in very troubling times now. I wish that everyone would realize and understand that the harassment and fear that minorities endure is not a trivial matter."
Words well spoken.
Coincidentally, there was a passage in the NPR story that contained a humorous line for those of us out here in what big-city coastal folk view as the "hinterlands of America," that Gilani was “raised in a Midwestern town with a name straight out of an episode of 'The Simpsons' — Normal, Illinois.”
Of Sarmad Gilani today, Homer and Marge and Bart Simpson might be proud.
And of Bloomington-Normal, too.
On Memorial Day, we remember those who sacrificed their lives to maintain our freedoms ... with liberty and justice, and allegedly still, for all.
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