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Sikh NYC Actor Barred From Flight: ‘Not a Great Feeling, I'm an American Citizen'

The Sikh-American designer and actor who was barred from getting on a flight back home to New York City because he refused to remove his turban said he was still in Mexico Wednesday afternoon. 

Waris Ahluwalia first related the experience over social media, saying attendants at the airport in Mexico City barred him from boarding his Aeroméxico flight Monday night. 

"They said, 'take off your turban,' just like they'd say, 'take off your shoes,'" Ahluwalia told NBC New York via FaceTime from Mexico City Tuesday. 

Ahluwalia says that as a Sikh, "it's OK to take it off, but it would be out of respect to do it privacy so you're not embarrassing someone." 

The Sikh American Legal Defense & Education Fund said in a statement Monday: "The turban is an integral part of a Sikh's identity and removal in public is akin to a strip search."

Ahluwalia asked for a private room to remove his turban.

"They then talked amongst themselves and came back to me and said, 'You won't be flying Aeromexico. You'll have to book yourself on another airline,'" he told NBC New York.

The airline has issued an apology saying in part: "We are a global airline that operates flights in different countries throughout the world and proudly embrace and recognize the diversity of our passengers... We apologize to Mr. Waris Ahluwalia for the unfortunate experience he had with one of our security guards. This incident inspires us to make sure that we strengthen the customer service protocols." 

The Associated Press reported Wednesday that the airline emailed Ahluwalia later Tuesday night and said it had "issued a directive to its staff regarding the religious siginificance of the Sikh turban" and planned to ask that the TSA and the Mexican government implement sensitivity training on religious headwear for airport agents. 

"If this makes a difference for anyone traveling into the country or leaving the country, then it was all worth it," Ahluwalia told The Associated Press. 

Sikhism, a 500-year-old religion founded in India, requires its male followers to wear a turban and beard and keep their hair uncut. Many members of the Sikh community have objected to the practice of frisking turbans, calling it unnecessary in a world with machines for body scanning and metal detection.

Ahluwalia said he's in touch with the airline and hopes to have a say and be part of the cultural and religious training. He said he doesn't want anyone else to be subjected to the experience." 

"That's not a great feeling. I'm an American citizen, a proud, patriotic American citizen," he said. 

Ahluwalia, who had traveled to Mexico for an art fair, left his hotel around 4:30 a.m. Monday planning to catch a morning flight to New York. When he checked in he noticed the boarding pass had an "SSSS" notation on it, which he said he has encountered "more than a dozen times" before at airports and apparently flags passengers for secondary screening.

After posting of the incident on Instagram, word spread rapidly on social media, and within about an hour airline executives tracked him down at the gate and offered him a boarding pass for the next flight to New York.

He declined, deciding to speak up as an actor and prominent member of the Sikh community to demand change.

"That was the moment I realized that if I didn't say anything, if I didn't do anything, if I didn't step out of my comfort zone, that this could happen again to someone" else, Ahluwalia said. "And I couldn't in good conscience get on that plane knowing that someone else would have to experience this."

He returned to the hotel.

That night, Aeromexico issued a statement saying it was "committed to transporting all its passengers without regard to their religion, social status or gender ... but the airline is obliged to comply with the federal rules determined by the U.S. Transportation Security Administration (TSA) for inspecting selected passengers travelling to the United States."

However, U.S. guidelines put into effect in 2010 no longer require air passengers to remove turbans if doing so makes them uncomfortable.

"TSA officers are trained to treat all passengers with dignity and respect, and receive periodic training regarding cultural and religious sensitivities," the agency said in a statement Wednesday. "When additional screening is needed that requires the removal of religious apparel, our officers offer private screening and request the passenger remove the item."

Ahluwalia said he isn't angry with Aeromexico or the agents who turned him away.

"The only way to combat that is with love, is with tolerance, is with understanding and is with education," he said.

He noted he was booked to return home Wednesday on the same Aeromexico flight he was blocked from.

"The reality of the situation is that it could have happened anywhere — and it has happened everywhere," Ahluwalia said. "It just so happened it went this far here."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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