Apr 27, 2020
 in 
History

Mehran Nasseri – Living in an Airport for 18 Years

 BY 
Genevieve Montague
D

id you ever catch a flight from Charles de Gaulle International Airport any time between August 26, 1988 – July 2006? If you did, all you had to do was go through Terminal 1 to catch a glimpse of Mehran Nasseri. Mehran Karimi Nasseri spent 18 years living in an airport waiting to catch a flight that never came. As an Iranian refugee, he got stuck at an airport in France — not only did he have nowhere to go, he couldn’t go anywhere.

Did you ever catch a flight from Charles de Gaulle International Airport any time between August 26, 1988 – July 2006? If you did, all you had to do was go through Terminal 1 to catch a glimpse of Mehran Nasseri. Mehran Karimi Nasseri spent 18 years living in an airport waiting to catch a flight that never came. As an Iranian refugee, he got stuck at an airport in France — not only did he have nowhere to go, he couldn’t go anywhere.

Who is Nasseri?

It isn’t the most straightforward task to trace Mehran Karimi Nasseri’s origin — he himself had claimed different roots of origin several times. One time, he claimed to be a Swedish national who got to Iran from Sweden by submarine. Still, one thing we do know, for close to 18 long years, Mehran Nasseri lived in the terminal of a Paris airport.

Nasseri, an Iranian refugee, also called himself Sir, Alfred Mehran. He resided in the departure lounge of Terminal 1 in Charles de Gaulle Airport from August 1988 until July 2006.

From what we can gather, Nasseri was born in 1943 in Masjed, Soleiman, Iran. In 1973, Nasseri traveled to study at the University of Bradford, UK. While away at school, he participated in the protests organized against Shah Reza Pahlavi — the last Shah of Iran. When he went back to Iran in 1977, he was imprisoned and subsequently exiled for participating in anti-government activities.

Nasseri requested political asylum from Iran. After the European countries denied him asylum for four years, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Belgium gave him official refugee status in 1981. Afterward, he planned to travel back to the United Kingdom, but his lack of documentation left him stuck in the lounge for 18 years.

Nasseri in Exile

Nasseri’s refugee documents allowed him to pursue citizenship in any European country. So he decided to relocate to the United Kingdom after he had spent a few years in Belgium. In 1988, he traveled via Paris to London. While his story becomes foggy here, Nasseri confirms that someone stole his briefcase on a Parisian train. Unfortunately, the stolen briefcase contained his refugee documents. Subsequently, the passport control officials at Heathrow Airport, London, returned him to France upon his arrival.

When Nasseri landed in France, French police arrested him, but they were unable to prove his entry into the country as illegal. And although the police released him, he was unable to leave the airport.

Due to his lack of paperwork and no home country to return to, he had no choice but to begin his residency at Terminal One in the Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Paris, France.

Nasseri’s residence went from weeks to months to years. With only his personal belongings by his side, he spent his time in the airport studying economics and documenting his experience in a journal. This documentary ended up being over a thousand pages long.

Nasseri in Terminal One

Years passed as the workers at the airport began to see Nasseri as a staple of the terminal, and they brought him food and newspapers. He also ate regularly from the McDonald’s place in the food court. He loved to roll Pall Mall cigarettes for himself.

Nasseri kept clean and presentable by washing in the men’s bathroom — the dry cleaners helped him launder his clothes. On the international scene, the story soon became a sensation. Journalists all around the world visited Charles de Gaulle Airport to interview him. Meanwhile, ordinary citizens sent him letters to remind him that they were thinking about him. Some even sent him money.

The Fight for Nasseri’s Freedom

Nasseri also caught the attention of a French human rights lawyer named Christian Bourguet, who eventually became Nasseri’s longtime lawyer. Nasseri’s case was a peculiar one — the only way Belgium would reissue his documents was if he presented himself in person. But this was impossible, seeing that he couldn’t travel without any documentation. Further complicating matters, the Belgian law would not grant return access to a refugee that has left the country.

Eventually, Belgium gave way and mailed his documents to him in 1999. Also, the French authorities gave him a residential permit. That might seem like good news, but according to Dr. Bargain, Nasseri wasn’t happy. Apparently, Nasseri thought that his new papers were fake.

Nasseri claimed in 1981, Heathrow’s officials gave him papers identifying him as Sir, Alfred Mehran with British nationality — with the comma included. The documents he received in 1999 identified him as Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian. Of course, Bourguet — who had spent nearly a decade helping him — was overwhelmed, but there was still the option of a name change. However, Nasseri didn’t see it that way.


Freedom Never Came

It is now apparent that living in an airport for years had taken a psychological toll on Nasseri, as it would on anyone. Nasseri simply needed to sign his new papers and get his name changed legally to be free of the airport. Sadly, that seemed like a bit of an ask for the freethinker. Plus, he always insisted that his mother was British — maybe that explains why he was hellbent on nationality.

In a GQ 2003 interview, Bourguet said that Nasseri might be crazy now. He recalls:

“HE HAD ARRIVED THERE BY SEVERAL STEPS…HE WAS QUITE LUCID IN THE TELLING OF HIS STORY, BUT OVER TIME, HE BECAME FREE OF LOGIC, SO HIS STORY KEPT CHANGING.” Christian Bourguet, French Human Rights Lawyer

In 2006, Nasseri was hospitalized, but the French authorities did not disclose what illness he had. However, his hospital visit ended his time at Charles de Gaulle International Airport. In 2007, he was reportedly discharged from the hospital and lodged in a hotel close to the airport.

Although he didn’t get his flight to London, he was given freedom in France. As of 2008, Mehran Karimi Nasseri was living in a shelter in the suburbs of Paris. It would seem that he never did get that British nationality back.  

The 2004 Steven Spielberg film The Terminal was culled from the real events of Sir, Alfred Mehran’s life.

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