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Turban-wearing Sikh actor who was barred from boarding plane is still refusing to fly home

Waris Ahluwalia is a well-known Sikh American designer and actor who is currently stuck in Mexico City after not being allowed to board a flight while wearing his turban. Here's where you may have seen him before. (Video: The Washington Post)

Waris Ahluwalia stopped resisting rigorous airport security checks a long time ago.

The Sikh American designer, model and actor says he’s grown accustomed to multiple bag searches, invasive pat-downs and incessant swabbing.

He’ll even let you massage his feet for foreign objects without protest.

After passing through two comprehensive screenings before his Aeromexico flight from Mexico City to New York City on Monday morning, he thought he was ready to board his plane. But security personnel thought otherwise.

“The security person said, ‘Now, will you take off your turban?’ ” Ahluwalia told The Washington Post, noting that he’s unsure of whether the man was employed by the airport, the airline, or both. “I said, ‘I won’t be taking off my turban here.’

“A group of Aeromexico employees spoke among themselves in Spanish and then one guy came back to me wearing an orange vest over a suit and said, ‘You will not be flying Aeromexico and you will need to book a flight on another airline.’ ”

More than a day after he was barred from boarding the plane, Ahluwalia remains in Mexico. Once his story made international headlines, Aeromexico offered him another ticket and told him he wouldn’t have to remove his turban — but Ahluwalia refused to accept it. He demanded that the airline issue a public apology and commit to retraining its staff.

His first demand was met when Aeromexico posted an apology on its website.

The airline “recognizes and is proud of the diversity of its passengers,” the statement said. “Every day we work to ensure strict compliance with the highest safety standards, while we respect and value the culture and beliefs of our customers.”

“We apologize to Mr. Waris Ahluwalia for the bad experience he had with one of our security elements while boarding his flight to New York in the Mexico City International Airport. This case motivates us to ensure that security personnel strengthen its care protocols, always respecting the cultural and religious values ​​of customers.”

Reached by phone at his Mexico City hotel Tuesday, Ahluwalia told The Post that he was “thrilled and happy” to hear about the apology when he woke up.

“We’re almost there,” he said. “That’s a great first step. Now we just have to make sure they’re interested in the education and training of their staff.”

“An apology is about the past and the training is about the future, so this doesn’t happen to anyone else.”

Ahluwalia refused to put a timeline on his departure and said his return home would depend instead on Aeromexico. He said he wants to sit down with company officials and “have a conversation” about training.

He’s hoping that meeting could take place sooner rather than later.

“I’d love to get home today,” he said, noting that he will continue to enjoy local cuisine if he’s forced to stay longer.

“I’m holding up fine.”

Sikhs in the U.S. are a small, often misunderstood community, readily identifiable by their turbans. (Video: Claritza Jimenez/The Washington Post)

After he was barred from flying Monday, the 41-year-old — who several years ago become the first Sikh American model in a national Gap ad campaign — refused to get angry.

Instead, he turned to social media, where he used his predicament to raise awareness about discriminatory airport screenings.

On Instagram, he wrote: “I was told I could not board my @aeromexico flight to NYC because of my turban.”

A second photo showed a somber-faced Ahluwalia standing in front of the airline’s customer service desk in Mexico City.

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“My turban and beard represent my commitment to equality and justice,” Ahluwalia said in a statement distributed by the Sikh Coalition, a nonprofit advocacy group that works on behalf of followers of the monotheistic faith, which originated in South Asia in the 15th century. “If security personnel would like to respond with bigotry and fear then I will take another flight that’s more inclusive.”

In the United States, according to the Sikh Coalition, security agents are allowed to pat down or swab a passenger’s turban with permission. Failing that, they can ask a passenger to step into a private area for a secondary screening.

Ahluwalia said airports all over the world follow similar rules, but he suspects that employees working at Aeromexico’s gate hadn’t been trained to screen Sikh passengers.

“At this point,” he told The Post on Monday, “I realize that this isn’t about my convenience or getting home for lunch today. I realize that if I walk away, somebody else was going to go through this experience again.”

He added: “It doesn’t feel like a choice I can make. I don’t think I can just get on that plane.”

His three demands were first noted in a Sikh Coalition tweet.

Ahluwalia, who is Indian American, has been featured in multiple best-dressed lists, including this Vanity Fair slideshow from 2010 touting his fashionable taste. He has also had roles in several Wes Anderson films alongside Hollywood stars such as Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman.

Even so, this is not the artist’s first brush with intolerance. In 2013, a Gap subway advertisement using his photo was defaced with anti-Muslim graffiti in New York, according to the Huffington Post.

The caption on the ad was changed from “Make Love” to “Make Bombs,” Huffington Post reported. The defacer also wrote “Please stop driving TAXIS” on the image.

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In recent months, Sikh advocates say, there have been a growing number of violent and discriminatory incidents targeting members of the religious group, who are frequently conflated with Muslims and often wind up absorbing the backlash against Islam.

“For Sikh Americans, the unique markers of religious identity — the turban, the beard — these markers are associated with the markers of terrorism,” Simran Jeet Singh, a senior religion fellow at the Sikh Coalition, told The Post’s Sarah Kaplan in September.

In other words: “People see a Sikh and construe them as the enemy.”

Harsimran Kaur, the Sikh Coalition’s legal director, told The Post in December that the backlash against people who are perceived as being non-American has been exacerbated by anti-Islamic statements made by Republican presidential candidates such as Ben Carson and Donald Trump. Carson has said that the United States should not elect a Muslim president, citing concerns about “different loyalties.” Trump has called for a “total and complete” ban on Muslims entering the United States.

“Trump’s statements legitimize nativist impulses,” Kaur told The Post. “It’s why we’re seeing more profiling and vandalism and intimidating incidents. We’ve been speaking to the family of an elderly man who was hit in the head with an apple a few days ago. These are the kind of things that you start to see as the political rhetoric escalates.”

This post, originally published on Feb. 8, has been updated. Marlon Correa contributed reporting from Washington.


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