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Sikh actor Waris Ahluwalia: Aeromexico kicked me off flight over turban

Sikh men who wear turbans shouldn't face discrimination, actor-designer Waris Ahluwalia says.

Story highlights

  • Airline offers apology to Waris Ahluwalia over botched security screening
  • He says Aeromexico wouldn't let him board a flight because of his turban
  • The designer and actor had roles in "The Grand Budapest Hotel" and "Inside Man"

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

But the Indian American actor, model and designer said he got stuck in Mexico City's airport because the country's largest airline wouldn't let him board a flight home.
    Ahluwalia, who is Sikh, said Aeromexico staff and security screeners told him Monday 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.
    In another post, the jewelry designer behind House of Waris said he might be late for New York Fashion Week because of the airline's decision.
    "Don't start the show without me," he wrote.

    Airline offers Ahluwalia an apology

    Aeromexico offered an apology Tuesday, saying it "recognizes and is proud of the diversity of its passengers."
    "We apologize to Mr. Waris Ahluwalia for the bad experience he went through with one of our security personnel," Aeromexico said in a statement.
    The airline said it works to maintain strong security measures while respecting its passengers' cultures and beliefs.
    The actor couldn't be immediately reached for comment on the apology.
    Earlier, he had said wouldn't board a plane back to New York until the airline made a public apology and assurances that airport security personnel would receive Sikh awareness training and better instruction on how to screen passengers with religious headgear.
    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 being mistaken for Muslims and being targeted after 9/11.
    Those who wear turbans shouldn't face discrimination, Ahluwalia said. Travelers should be taken into a private area if they're asked to remove their turban, he said, as U.S. Transportation Security Administration policy indicates.

    Fashion world reacts

    Ahluwalia, who didn't have any scheduled appearances on the runway this week, has become a well-known fixture in the fashion world -- in his home of New York and beyond.
    His situation drew swift condemnation on social media and from the head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
    Steven Kolb described Ahluwalia's treatment as "outrageous" and called him "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 said he has had brushes with bigotry before. In 2013, a Gap holiday ad with him 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."
    A 2013 Gap ad with Ahluwalia was defaced at a New York subway station.
    That "was a great example for corporate responsibility," Ahluwalia said, "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 Ahluwalia said he knew he needed 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."