Terminal burger


“Welcome to the Central Diner,” reads the sign. “24 hours of food and fun.”

Inside the atmosphere might be better described as subdued. Table come and go in a low hubbub. Customers have planes to catch.

This is terminal four of JFK Airport, one of the shinier terminals at a run-down airport, one that fits neatly into my theory that airport naming committees will always find you out. (Benazir Bhutto might be revered around the world but her reign coincided with one of the most corrupt periods in Pakistani history, her father pioneered the country’s lurch into the hands of armed Islamist proxies and her ministers embraced the Taliban with gusto. Her airport in Islamabad is rubbish. And in New York, when they changed the name of Idlewild Airport to JFK they surely were sniggering at the fact that Kennedy’s myth was bigger than anything the man achieved.)

To my right is a classic diner counter lined with stools.

Waitresses with East European names and accents dispense coffee refills and NY attitude.

What makes the Central Diner different is its location at the heart of the fight against Donald Trump’s Muslim-ban-that-isn’t-a-ban. It is all down to quirk of scheduling. Terminal four finds itself on the frontline because twice a day Emirates flights arrive from Dubai, carrying passengers whose journeys start all across the Middle East, North Africa and Asia.

It was where Hameed Khalid Darweesh stepped off his flight last Friday and was promptly detained, even though he had arrived on a special visa designed to protect the life of a man who had worked for US armed forces in Iraq. A weekend of protests followed.

Rabina Taj, an immigration attorney who lives in East Harlem, was in Vermont on a skiing trip when she heard the news. By the time she and her friends began the journey back to New York on Sunday they had set up a website to help co-ordinate the efforts of volunteer lawyers and get information to worried travellers.

Since then she has taken time off her job to pull long hours in the pop-up legal centre that has taken root in the seating area beside the diner.

The night before we meet she was working until 2am.


Volunteers have fanned out through the airport trying to track down travellers who have got caught in a tightened net. Without access to areas beyond the arrival hall it is a tough business.

They look out for relatives who have been waiting hours for arrivals who never arrive, or they simply hold up banners offering assistance to anyone in need.

Although several courts have pushed back against the ban and the White House has dropped its requirement to include green card holders on the blacklist, the problems aren’t over.

There is nothing to stop border officials taking anyone out of line for secondary questioning which can last for up to seven hours, about the time lawyers would file a Habeus Corpus writ demanding the prisoner be presented in court, says Nabila.

People snared include naturalised American citizens, those from countries other than the seven seven affected countries (Iran, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen) and some with green cards and the legal right to permanent residence in the US.

The result is that even with the chaos of that first weekend easing, lawyers like Nabila say they will be sticking around for as long as they are needed.

That means lots of Central Diner coffee.

“They’ve been incredible, serving us food and letting us come in to talk and so on,” says Nabila.

“We had more of their space. It’s cordoned off now but at one time we had all their dining area.

“We really appreciate them letting us have our headquarters here.”

As well as giving up their staff for volunteer work, a number of law firms have chipped in to pay off the tab.

People coming off planes have made donations, including one passenger who handed over $90. That went straight into the diner tip jar.

And a gofundme page has raised more than $5000 for tips and diner gift cards to go to other airport staff who have gone out of their way to support (or turn a blind eye) to the legal effort sprawling across the terminal.

Nabila thanks me for the coffee but says she won’t stay for a burger.

I don’t blame her. Although the burger is nicely packed with lettuce, tomato and red onion, the patty is a let down. Grey with a dubious hum of freezer taint. It’s the sort of thing I might have eaten at a British regional airport in the 1980s, but doesn’t really fit this distant outpost of Camelot.

After a couple of bites the red onion is too much. Eye wateringly too much.

The fries are nothing to write home about (unless, that is, your address is Underwhelming French Fry House, Chipping Awful, Worst Chipshire or some such).

I leave a big tip anyway.




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