‘Humiliating, dehumanizing’: Muslim students call search of bag by senior VIU employee ‘racial profiling’


Walking into the library of Vancouver Island University (VIU) in Nanaimo always felt like a safe place for Sara and Zena Kishawi, until now.

The sisters say they were the victims of racial profiling by a senior VIU employee.

“Humiliating, dehumanizing at some point. We were shocked. Why are you looking in our bag, only us?” Sara told CHEK News Wednesday.

“I see this moment happen, and I’m like, ‘Okay, what was that?’ It was so shocking. Does that not go against all the morals of this university,” said Zena, a VIU biology student.

It happened on March 7 on the library’s fifth floor during a heated VIU senate meeting. Participants were discussing controversial program cuts.

Sara, a fourth-year sociology student, and her sister Zena were seated at a table with two other members of the VIU Muslim Women’s Club when a friend dropped off a bag containing a button maker for upcoming rallies and left.

Within minutes, the students said an employee approached the bag and began looking into it. After the students confronted the person, the senior employee called over the head of security, Mark Egan, to explain why he had looked in the bag.

“We were taken aback, so I asked, ‘Excuse me, why are you looking in our bag?’ And he said, ‘Oh, there was a concern reported with the bag,'” said Sara.

“I never expected it to happen here, at a higher education institution,” said Zena.

The group recorded their interaction with the employee and posted it on social media, where a flood of comments followed.

“20+ people gathered in a room with backpacks, and the only people whose bags got checked are the hijabi girls who weren’t even involved in the crowd,” wrote one commenter.

“@VIU so you are racially profiling students without consent and then acting confused,” wrote another.

In a letter to the Muslim Women’s Club after the incident, VIU president Deborah Saucier stated that the reason for the search was “A VIU employee observed a man described as a white male wearing a N95 mask, leave a bag on a table and leave the area. An employee expressed concern about a suspicious unattended bag to a senior employee who walked over to observe the bag in question.”

Saucier continued, “Neither employee involved were aware that the bag had been dropped off for your group by a friend.”

Saucier has apologized for the incident, but the VIU Muslim Women’s Club is not satisfied that it won’t happen again.

“There was no way it was an unattended bag, with four of us sitting around it,” added Sara.

The women’s club is hosting a protest in front of VIU’s library at 11:30 a.m. on Thursday.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story said the person who searched the bag was a security guard. A letter sent to the VIU Muslim Women’s Club identified the person as a “senior employee.” This story has been updated to reflect this.

Skye RyanSkye Ryan

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