Mehran Karimi Nasseri: The man who lived in an airport for 18 years

Do you remember the 2004 American movie “The Terminal,” in which Tom Hanks plays an Eastern European man who gets stuck in New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport (JFK) after being refused entry into the United States?

Well, some plots in the film are partially true and based on the real-life experience of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived in the departure lounge of Terminal 1 at Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) for 18 years.

Nasseri was born in Iran

Born in the oil-rich town of Masjed Soleiman to an Iranian doctor and a Scottish nurse, Nasseri arrived in the United Kingdom in 1973 to study Yugoslav studies at the University of Bradford in West Yorkshire.

After returning to Iran, Nasseri says he was expelled from the Middle Eastern Country in 1977 after protesting the rule of The Shah. After a long battle involving applying to become a refugee in several countries, he was awarded the status of being a refugee in Belgium by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Belgium.

With his status now clear, he was free to settle in other European countries as well. This claim, however, has been disputed many times, with later investigations showing that Nasseri was never expelled from Iran as he had claimed.

Nasseri decided he wanted to live in the United Kingdom

With his mother being British, Nasseri decided that he wanted to settle in the United Kingdom, but while en route to the country, his papers were lost after someone allegedly stole his briefcase. Some claim that Nasseri mailed his documents to Brussels while onboard a ferry and made up the story about them being stolen.

Undeterred, Nasseri boarded a flight to London, but with no papers to identify himself, he was promptly returned to France. Now back in France, he was arrested by the French authorities but then released as his being in the airport was legal, and he had no country to return to.

A French human rights lawyer took up his case

And so Nasseri’s life in Terminal 1 began. Christian Bourget, a French human rights lawyer, agreed to take his case, and in 1992 a French court ruled that he could not be extradited as he had entered the country legally. The ruling did not allow him to enter France though, leaving him stuck at the airport.

His lawyer then attempted to get travel documents issued from Belgium, but the authorities in Brussels said that would only be possible if Nasseri presented himself in person. In 1995, he was granted permission to travel to Belgium under the condition that he live under the supervision of a social worker. Nasseri refused the offer, saying that he wanted to live in the UK as he had initially planned to do.

Even France decided to grant Nasseri residence, yet he refused to sign the paper as they listed his nationality as Iranian when he wanted to be British and go by the name “Sir Alfred.” By this time, Bourget was frustrated by his client’s refusal to accept the Belgium and French residency offers. When questioned why he did not accept the offers, his lawyer said Nasseri was living the life he wanted.

Nasseri left the airport in 2007

Nasseri’s stay at the airport ended in July 2006 when he was hospitalized until January 2007. When discharged from the hospital, he was cared for by a branch of the French Red Cross. They put Nasseri up in a hotel near the airport, where he stayed until being transferred to a charity reception center in Paris’s 20th arrondissement. During his 18-year stay at the airport, Nasseri had his luggage at his side and lived off the generosity of airport workers, who provided him with food and reading materials.

In 2003, Nasseri was contacted by Steven Spielberg’s DreamWorks production company and paid $250,000 for the rights to his story. In the end, though, Spielberg did not use Nasseri’s story but kept the initial plot for the film “The Terminal.”



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