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“Scared to go home due to Covid”, man spends 3 months living in Chicago airport

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A real-life “The Terminal” story

File image of a passenger walking through American Airlines baggage claim area at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. Picture: AP Photo/Nam Y Huh.

By Antonia Noori Farzan

With the coronavirus pandemic putting most travel on hold, Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport has been quieter than usual.

So quiet, in fact, that a 36-year-old California man was apparently able to take up residence between a Cinnabon and a shoe shine stand for nearly three months before authorities noticed.

When finally confronted over the weekend, Aditya Singh told police that he was “scared to go home due to Covid”, prosecutors said in a Sunday bond hearing, according to the Associated Press.

During his extended layover, which began in October, he survived in part on food given to him by other passengers, grew out his beard, lectured travellers about Buddhism and Hinduism, and attempted to evade scrutiny by wearing an airport worker’s identification badge.

The episode has inspired comparisons to “The Terminal”, the 2004 film starring Tom Hanks, while also raising questions about the airport’s security measures.

“So if I understand you correctly, you’re telling me that an unauthorised, non-employee individual was allegedly living within a secure part of the O’Hare airport terminal from October 19, 2020, to January 16, 2021, and was not detected?” Cook County Circuit Judge Susana Ortiz asked during the Sunday court proceedings, according to the Chicago Tribune. “I want to understand you correctly.”

Singh, who does not appear to have a criminal record, faces charges of felony criminal trespass in a restricted area of an airport and misdemeanour theft.

He is being held on $1,000 bail in Cook County Jail, and is expected to next appear in court on January 27.

The Chicago Department of Aviation said in a statement that the incident “remains under investigation”, but that Singh “did not pose a security risk to the airport or to the travelling public”.

Early in the pandemic, a complicated patchwork of travel restrictions led to numerous stories of international travellers becoming stranded at airports as they attempted to make their way home.

But Singh appears to have camped out at O’Hare’s Terminal 2 voluntarily, and there’s no indication that he ventured outside the security checkpoints between arriving on October 19 and being discovered early Saturday morning. Instead, he made himself at home near an out-of-the-way gate, CBS Chicago reported.

Friends of the 36-year-old told the Tribune that Singh, who is originally from India, first arrived in the United States five years ago to pursue his Master’s degree at Oklahoma State University.

A profile on the school’s website shows that he was studying hospitality management with a focus on minimising food waste.

After graduating in 2019, he moved to Orange County, California, helping to care for a friend’s elderly father and perform odd jobs in exchange for a place to stay.

Carl Jones, the friend who opened up his home to Singh, described him as a “very gentle soul” to the Tribune and said that Singh frequently spent time volunteering with the homeless.

When Singh’s visa was set to expire last fall, he announced plans to fly back to India, which for months had been reporting more new coronavirus cases than any other country in the world. But he only got as far as O’Hare.

“Maybe he got to Chicago and due to some sort of hiccup couldn’t get any farther or just freaked out about having to go back to India, I don’t know,” Jones told the Tribune.

“But, as far as I know, he was supposed to be just laying over and going to India.”

Singh’s moment of reckoning arrived this weekend when two United Airlines employees asked to see his identification and he presented an ID badge that an airport employee had reported missing several months earlier.

He later told police that he had found the badge inside the airport, prosecutors said.

An airport official told the Tribune that the badge would have been deactivated after it was reported missing, meaning that it would have set off an alarm if Singh tried to access any restricted areas.

Authorities haven’t said whether Singh’s expiring visa might have contributed to his unwillingness to leave the airport, and friends have suggested that financial woes may have also played a role.

One of them, Mary Steele, told the Tribune that Singh texted her periodically from O’Hare, but she didn’t believe he was actually living there.

“I need to complete my karmic lessons that I’m learning here,” he told her, explaining that had been teaching travellers about his Buddhist and Hindu beliefs in hopes of improving their lives, and felt that he was growing spiritually from the experience.

“This is a wonderful, good-hearted man,” Steele said. “There is no malice in his heart or ill will.

“He did this all because he really felt universal forces – God, the Holy Spirit, whatever you want to call it – was telling him this was his karmic lesson.

“And there you have it – now his karmic lesson is being (in jail) in the United States of America.”