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What’s in a name? A lot more than I bargained for. Born in Syria, I immigrated with my family to New York City as a ten-year-old. Back then, it used to bug me a lot when people mispronounced my name, Bachar (buh-shar).
My name has been butchered so many times I think in some small way, it has given me character and patience with other people. I have learned having your name mispronounced is a common experience among immigrants, and often the least of their worries.
Things turned up a notch, however, following a fateful morning in my ninth-grade biology class. I was in room 707 at Stuyvesant High School on 345 Chambers St., four blocks north of World Trade Center One. I will never forget the deafening roar of American Airlines Flight 11’s engines as it flew over our building and plunged so horrifically into the North Tower. It was the sound of the world turning a very dark corner.
— Stuyvesant High School, New York City, 9/11/2001
The school closed down to be used as a triage center for a month, and later reopened. But people didn’t stop mispronouncing my name. In short, my life and the world continued with some sense of normalcy.
On Thursday, August 14, 2003, a band of friends and I set out for that kitschy oceanside town in New Jersey known as Wildwood. Jay, the oldest among us, had just gotten his license, and we were free at last to explore the world beyond the four corners of “the Block,” the self-styled name for our posse and the street most of us lived on in Brooklyn.
The day turned out to be fateful. As luck would have it, a malfunction at an electricity plant in Ohio caused much of the Eastern Seaboard, including New York City and parts of New Jersey, to go dark. We were blissfully without a care, as we were already in Wildwood, a town off the grid for better or worse, and our own “blackout” was well underway.
The next day, the power was back on in New York and I was running low on beer money. I asked my father to wire me some cash, about US$100, from New York to the Western Union booth at the nearest supermarket. Expecting the process to take minutes, as promised on Western Union’s site, I was there for more than two hours while my buddies gallivanted on the boardwalk.
I asked the supermarket clerk, “What do you think could be taking so long?” Her reply shocked me:
“It might be because of your last name. If your mother has a different name maybe she should go ahead and try it.”
Apparently, anyone sending or receiving US$100 with the last name Mahmoud raises red flags. So my mother sent it under her maiden name, Noukari, which is less common and sounds more Japanese than Arabic when spelled in English. The money arrived within minutes!
I never did get a clear explanation for why the wire was frozen, but my suspicions were confirmed more than a decade later when Bank of America, official sponsor of Freedom™ and Liberty™, placed a “soft freeze” on my bank account.
A few weeks ago, the waitress at the Hibachi restaurant I took a girl to on a date returned to our table and said:
“I’m sorry sir, but your card was declined.”
I immediately checked my balance on my Bank of America app and confirmed there was more than enough money to cover the meal.
“There has to be some misunderstanding. Could you try it again?” I asked.
Same result: card declined. I thought perhaps my account was put on a temporary suspension. Who knows, with all of the security breaches lately, from Target to Home Depot, some hacker in Belarus or Jakarta could have taken me to the cleaners.
My date ended up paying for the meal and, needless to say, that night ended early for me. After dropping her off, I went to the nearest ATM and tried to pull out some money. It worked, so I was very confused. I could withdraw money, but my card was otherwise defunct.
I called the number on the back of the card and dialed zero about a thousand times so I could speak to a representative. I told them it appeared there was a hold placed on my account. After verifying my name, address, and social security number umpteen times to three different representatives, I reached a member of the compliance department, who stated:
“Sir, a soft freeze has been placed on your account. You should have gotten something in the mail. We need you to come in to a local branch to verify your residency and your U.S. citizenship.”
I was livid.
“I don’t understand,” I said, while fighting the urge not to raise my voice. “I’ve been Bank of America’s customer (their creditor to be precise) for over 10 years. I have received nothing in the mail. Furthermore, I don’t need to prove anything to you to get access to my account again. What authority do you have to attach my property without a court order?”
“OFAC (the Office of Foreign Assets Control) regulations, sir,” she replied.
I responded, “That’s not a statute or regulation I can look up. Give me the exact name of the legal authority you are operating under.”
Apparently, that’s all she and her supervisor knew, and the rest of the details were in the mail. The compliance representative urged me to bring the paperwork in because within 30 days, my “soft freeze” would become a “hard freeze,” and I would no longer be able to withdraw any money at all from my account.
I waited for the letter from Bank of America to arrive, and in the meantime, I did some research of my own. I found out OFAC is the U.S. Treasury’s arm for enforcing sanctions on countries like Syria.
I learned that the “Syria Sanctions” are a group of executive orders signed by former President Bush and President Obama that allow U.S. banks to freeze accounts, without warning, for “specially designated nationals” (SDNs). These are individuals and companies owned or controlled by, or acting for or on behalf of, targeted countries or other individuals, such as terrorists and narcotics traffickers.
I even searched for my name on the sanctions list search of the OFAC website, and what do you know, I am not in there either!
Just to be perfectly clear, my account contained under US$1,000 and I’ve never sent or received any wires from Syria, or any other foreign country. Nor do I have any political affiliations besides registering as a Democrat, which I tend to regret ever doing. So I cannot fathom what type of suspicion, after all these years as their customer, could be motivating them, besides my name and country of birth.
It’s now been more than two weeks and I still have not received any paperwork from Bank of America justifying their actions. I have since withdrawn all of my money from my account there, and I have not yet opened an account at another bank because I cannot be sure the other too-big-to-fail banks will not treat me the same way. As of today, not only I am still waiting to receive any letters from Bank of America, but I plan to take them to court.
Let me be clear: My story is not the worst thing that has ever happened to someone. But it highlights a creeping sense of fascism in the United States, where corporations are merging with the government, giving them collective abilities to grab innocent people by the balls through their bank accounts.
It is no wonder Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies are receiving so much attention and fanfare. I am hopeful for a future where cryptocurrencies allow people like me to take a vacation or go out on a date without fear of having their money arbitrarily confiscated.