By Miriam Raftery
September 3, 2015 (El Cajon) – Six soccer players from El Cajon face federal charges of disrupting a Southwest Airline flight from San Diego to Chicago. The flight was diverted and landed in Texas Monday after a confrontation between crew members and the passengers. If convicted of interfering with an airline flight, the young people could face up to 20 years in prison.
The federal complaint alleges that the young athletes in a Chaldean soccer league, all in their late teens or early 20s, used profanity, lunged at a flight attendant, and called her racist and a pig. But family and friends of those arrested say the dispute arose after flight attendants demanded that the players, all Iraqi-American Christians from El Cajon, stop talking in their native language. Some suggest racial profiling. Now another passenger has stepped forward to say he saw no altercation at all.
Not only is this intolerant, it is illegal,” Mark Arabo, a national spokesperson for Chaldean-Americans, said Monday regarding the airline’s demand that passengers speak only in English. In a press release, Arabo said he helped negotiate release of the men, for now, though they are still facing charges. The young men are driving back to San Diego, due to arrive early in the morning. They have no cell phones, since those were seized by the federal government. Arabo said, “These young men made some regrettable actions,” but adds, “There is fault on both sides…We intend to wholeheartedly stand behind these young men moving forward.”
Today Arabo released an additional statement which says while the young men acted "irresponsibly," the actions taken by Southwest Airlines were "shameful." he adds, "After discussion with passengers, as well as the young men in question we are beginning to receive a much fuller image as to what happened. There are blatant discrepancies in the story by Southwest Airlines. The response by Southwest indicates a culture of intolerance within the airline. And after consideration of the incident, we are currently looking at the possibility of a joint lawsuit. ”
A flight attendant has said she feared for the safety of the crew and passengers when the players “refused to obey instructions.”
But Andrew Lundgren, who was seated in row 15, has issued a statement indicating he was shocked when the plane landed and the six passengers were taken off in Texas. Then an officer addressed those on the plane.
“He said that the men had been taken into custody for not following the instructions of the flight attendants and informed us that this is a federal crime. This was very surprising because I had heard no altercation whatsoever and I had seen no altercation whatsoever,” Lundgren said. “He told us that we would all de-board the plane one row at a time and that we would have a chance to make an official statement regarding the altercation. This again was shocking because I do not believe any altercation occurred.”
Tamara Petras, whose brother was arrested, says this was “just a group of Middle Eastern boys speaking our language having fun on a plane going on their first vacation together for a soccer tournament.” In an interview with NBC 7 TV, Petras says she believes cutting the flight short was an overreaction.
The family suggests the airline engaged in racial profiling, with a flight attendant shouting “Shut up” repeatedly at the soccer players.
But Muhammad Shamsaldia, another soccer player in the league, says his colleagues should have shown “respect for their elders.”
Those arrested are Saiman Hermez, 19; Jonathan Khalid Petras, 20; Ghazwan Asaad Shaba, 21; Essa Solaqa, 20; Khalid Yohana, 19; and Wisam Imad Shaker, 23, named in a criminal complaint.