Sikh actor Waris Ahluwalia: Aeromexico kicked me off flight for wearing turban

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(CNN)Waris Ahluwalia‘s trip to Mexico started out as a thrilling visit to a contemporary art show.

But now the actor, model and designer says he’s stuck in Mexico City’s airport because the country’s largest airline wouldn’t let him board a flight home.

    Ahluwalia, who is Sikh, says Aeromexico staff and security screeners Monday told him to buy a ticket on a different airline after he refused to remove the turban he wears as part of his faith.

    “I was upset, I had anxiety, I was shaking, I did not speak,” Ahluwalia told CNN. “And then I realized, clearly, they have not been trained properly. I knew yelling will not do anything. It is about education and the policy.”

    And so, days after he posted about fresh papayas and famed artist Frida Kahlo, Ahluwalia started sharing photos about his security screening.

    Ahluwalia — whose acting career has included roles in “The Grand Budapest Hotel,” “The Darjeeling Limited” and “Inside Man” — drew attention to his plight on social media, posting a photo of what he said was his canceled plane ticket.

    This morning in Mexico City I was told I could not board my @aeromexico flight to NYC because of my turban. #FearisanOpportunitytoEducate #humanrights #dignity #lovenotfear

    A photo posted by Waris Ahluwalia (@houseofwaris) on

    In another post, the jewelry designer behind House of Waris said he might be late for New York Fashion Week this year because of the airline’s decision.

    “Don’t start the show without me,” he wrote.

    Dear NYC fashion week. I may be a little late as @aeromexico won't let me fly with a turban. Don't start the show without me. #lovenotfear #fearisanopportunitytoeducate

    A photo posted by Waris Ahluwalia (@houseofwaris) on

    Airline: Screening complied with protocol

    A spokesman for the airline told CNN in a written statement that Ahluwalia “was asked to submit to a screening and inspection before boarding, in strict compliance with TSA protocol.”

    “We have offered the passenger (two) alternatives to reach his destination as soon as possible,” spokesman Amilcar Olivares said. “We sincerely regret any inconvenience caused by this incident.”

    Ahluwalia says the airline changed its tune after he made the situation public and acknowledges they’ve offered him the chance to get on other flights.

    But he says he won’t board a plane back to New York until the airline makes a public apology and airport security personnel get Sikh awareness training and better training on how to screen passengers with religious headwear.

    Sikh men have worn turbans since 1699, when the last living guru bestowed a unique Sikh identity based on five articles of faith. Among them were a steel bracelet signifying a reality with no beginning or end; a sword representing resolve and justice; and unshorn hair as a gift of God and a declaration of humility.

    Some Sikh men don’t wear turbans and beards; others say they stopped after they were mistaken for Muslims and targeted after September 11.

    Those who wear turbans shouldn’t face discrimination, Ahluwalia says. Travelers should be taken into a private area if they’re asked to remove their turban, he said, as TSA policy indicates.

    The Sikh turban: At once personal and extremely public

    Losing the Turban: Indian Sikhs at odds on essentials

    Fashion world reacts

    Ahluwalia doesn’t have any scheduled appearances on the runway this week, but he’s become a well-known fixture in the fashion world — in his home of New York and beyond.

    The incident drew swift condemnation on social media and from the head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

    Steven Kolb described the situation as “outrageous” and described Ahluwalia as “overall the nicest guy in our industry.”

    “He is a front-row fixture of Fashion Week, and not to have him here is unfair to him on so many levels,” Kolb said. “We support him in his decision for wanting to make this a teachable moment, and I have a lot of respect for him.”

    ‘We have to be vigilant’

    Ahluwalia says this isn’t his first brush with bigotry. In 2013, a Gap holiday ad he was featured in drew widespread attention after someone defaced it in a New York subway station.

    “Make Love” was crossed out to read “Make Bombs.” Beneath that, someone scrawled, “Please stop driving TAXIS.”

    The company was quick to replace the ad and double down on its campaign, making the photo its background image on Twitter and Facebook and releasing a statement saying Gap “is a brand that celebrates inclusion and diversity.”


    That “was a great example for corporate responsibility,” Ahluwalia says, “but this is the exact opposite of that.”

    “I didn’t ask to be a public face or voice of a religion. Sikhs have been in (the United States) for over 125 years,” he said. “I just want to make and create art.”

    But now, Ahluwalia says he knows he needs to take a stand.

    “I’m not sitting here angry at Aeromexico. Everyone makes mistakes. I’ve made mistakes,” he said. “But what makes us different is how we collect and respond and react to the mistakes we make. They did not know. I cannot blame them for that, but ignorance and fear is the flag humans carry, and we have to be vigilant to fight that.”

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