To celebrate the delivery (expected and anticipated delivery actually) of my "Terminal" movie poster today, I'm posting about the real life events that the movie is based upon. Didn't know someone was actually living in an airport eh? Well here's the full story:
Claim: A man has been living at a Paris airport since 1988.
Origins: What follows is one representative newspaper account of the strange story of Merhan Karimi Nasseri, a man without country, trapped by his lack of papers in Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris, France, since 26 August 1988:
He could be any passenger waiting for a flight, sitting patiently on a red plastic bench in Charles de Gaulle Airport's Terminal One, luggage piled neatly by his side. He sips a cup of hot chocolate and scans the crowd, occasionally cocking his head to listen to the airport announcements. He peruses a book, Hillary Rodham Clinton's "It Takes a Village."
But Merhan Karimi Nasseri is going nowhere. He has been waiting for a flight out of France, he says, for 10 years. Nasseri was expelled from Iran a decade ago for his political views. Through a series of fateful missteps, he landed here without any documents. Since then, Europe's increasingly stiff stance toward refugees and his fragile mental state have kept him at the airport here in legal limbo. His is a story of broken hopes and bureaucracy, of a trip across Europe in search of a homeland that became a journey into mental chaos and despair. And it is a story of a man who has searched for his family, only to find an adopted one here, at Charles de Gaulle. "He's like a part of the airport. Everyone knows him," says Muhamed Mourrid, the manager of the Bye Bye Bar, pointing to the spot where Nasseri, 47, has lived for a decade. "That's his table, his chair, his place." Adds Marise Petry, a Lufthansa clerk, "He's one of us. We even get letters for him."
Among the annals of horrific refugee tales, Nasseri's story is remarkable for its pathos and complexity. It begins in Iran in 1977, when Nasseri, fresh from studying in England, was expelled for protesting against the shah. His expulsion left him without a passport. Nasseri came to Europe. He bounced from capital to capital, applying for refugee status and being refused, again and again, for nearly four years. In 1981, his request for political asylum from Iran was finally granted by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Belgium. That decision gave him refugee credentials, which in turn allowed him to seek citizenship in a European country. The son of an Iranian and a Briton, Nasseri decided in 1986 on England with the hope of finding relatives there. He got as far as Paris, where in 1988 his briefcase containing his refugee documents was stolen in a train station. Nasseri boarded a plane for London anyway. But when officials at Heathrow Airport found he had no passport, they sent him back to Charles de Gaulle. At first, the French police arrested him for illegal entry. But as Nasseri had no documents, there was no country of origin to which he could be deported. So he took up residence in Terminal One. From its circular confines, he and his attorney, the Paris-based human rights lawyer Christian Bourget, battled to define his status and send him to London.
In 1992, a French court finally ruled that Nasseri had entered the airport legally as a refugee and could not be expelled from it. But the court could not force the French government to allow him out of the airport onto French soil. In fact, Bourget said, French authorities refused to give Nasseri either a refugee or transit visa. "It was pure bureaucracy," said the lawyer. French immigration authorities have no comment on the case. Bourget and Nasseri then focused on Belgium, where they hoped to reclaim Nasseri's original refugee documents. But Belgian refugee officials refused to mail them to him in France. They argued that Nasseri had to present himself in person so that they could be sure he was the same man to whom they had granted political asylum years before. But, inexplicably, the Belgian government refused at that point to allow Nasseri to return there. And under Belgian law, a refugee who voluntarily leaves a country that has accepted him cannot return.
In 1995, the Belgian government finally told Nasseri that he could retrieve his refugee documents if he agreed to live in Belgium under the supervision of a social worker. Nasseri refused. He said he would move only to Great Britain. And so here he has remained, year after year. At first glance, the dignified man does not appear to be a refugee who sleeps on an airport bench because he has nowhere else to go. His clothes are clean, his moustache well-trimmed. He keeps his one blazer covered with plastic wrap, hanging from an airport cart. His belongings are carefully packed in a frayed suitcase and a stack of Lufthansa boxes. Nasseri nods hello to a clerk, who calls him "Alfred," his nickname here. He follows the news closely, thanks to the most recent Time magazine, which the postman has just dropped off. And he loves to discuss the new selections from the Book-of-the-Month Club. "I just keep on reading, every day," said the soft-spoken Nasseri, a courtly gentleman who rises and offers his seat to a visitor. "I just keep waiting here." His pallid complexion is testament to his inability to cross the airport threshold to the outside world. He walks to the doors of Terminal One and absorbs fresh air as they swing open. But he never steps outside. His hollow cheeks and thin frame show the limits of the generosity of airport staff and strangers to help with his meals. Nasseri's confused account of his plight speaks to the psychological price he has paid in his fight to become a man who belongs somewhere. "Nobody could suffer all he did and stay normal," noted Bourget. The sad truth is this: After fighting for years to leave the airport and apply for citizenship elsewhere, Nasseri was afraid to do so when the opportunity arose. Belgium offered Nasseri the chance to settle there, but he refused. "Now, I think he will stay in the airport until he dies," Bourget concluded softly.
His bizarre tale has brought him a degree of fame. He has been the subject of news reports from Finland to Britain. His life story became a 1994 French film, starring Jean Rochefort. Nasseri gets fewer visitors now to punctuate the long days down on Terminal One's boutique level, ringed with stores and small cafes. But he still has a following who help clothe and feed him and lift his spirits. "He does no harm to anyone," said Papa Starr, manager of the Les Palmes restaurant. "Everyone cares for him here." Several times a week, the airport priest stops by to visit him, as does Dr. Phillipe Bargain, the airport doctor. Many staff regularly visit him at his table for a cup of coffee and a chat. "I get lots of cards at Christmas," he said. "I call it my American Christmas." His life follows the quotidian airport cycle. He wakes at 5:30 in order to shave in the men's room before passengers arrive. He reads all day long. At night, he waits until the airport stores are locked before he brushes his teeth with the toothbrush and toothpaste from a complimentary airline travel kit. Weekly, he rinses out his clothes overnight in the bathroom. Nasseri is renowned throughout the airport for his refusal to ask for help. "We have a colleague who gave him clothes, but he returned them, saying 'I'm not a beggar,'" said Crystelle L'Hospitalier, a Lufthansa clerk. But he has to eat, and accepts occasional meal vouchers and francs from stewardesses and airport staff.
As the years have slipped by, it has become increasingly clear that Nasseri will never leave Charles de Gaulle. His airport years have made him "crazier by the day," on the topic of his future, said airport doctor Bargain. When he talks about flying to London, the staff here greet him with understanding smiles. "An airport is kind of a place between heaven and earth," said Danielle Yzerman, spokeswoman for Charles de Gaulle. "He has found a home here."1 Nasseri, who has since adopted the name "Sir, Alfred Merhan" (that's not a typo — Nasseri took both the title and its misplaced comma from a mistake in a letter from British immigration), has changed the story he tells about his background several times over the years:
Over the years, he has claimed many things about his origins. At one time his mother was Swedish, another time English. Nasseri's effectively reinvented himself in the Charles de Gaulle airport and denies these days that he's Iranian, deflecting any conversation about his childhood in Tehran. ("He pretends he doesn't speak Persian," his longtime lawyer, Christian Bourguet, says. "He was interviewed by Iranian journalists and made believe he didn't understand.") When we first met two years ago, he insisted that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees was attempting to locate his parents in order to establish his identity. But a spokeswoman for the agency dismissed the assertion as "pure folly." Early on in his saga, Nasseri maintained that he was expelled from his homeland for antigovernment activity in 1977. According to a number of reports, Nasseri protested against the regime of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlevi while a student in England, and when he returned to Iran, found himself imprisoned, and shortly thereafter exiled. He bounced around Europe for a few years with temporary refugee papers, alighting finally in Belgium, where he was awarded official refugee status in 1981. He traveled to Britain and France without difficulty until 1988, when he landed at Charles de Gaulle airport after being denied entry into Britain, because, he contends, his passport and refugee certificate were stolen in a mugging on a Paris subway. Nasseri could not prove who he was, nor offer proof of his refugee status. So he moved into the Zone d'attente, a holding area for travelers without papers. He stayed for days, then weeks — then months, then years. As his bizarre odyssey stretched on, Bourguet, the noted French human rights lawyer, took on the case, and the news media piled on. Articles appeared around the world, and Nasseri became the subject of three documentary films. (Oddly, apparently none of his friends or relatives have attempted to contact him.)2 Nasseri is known for his honesty (when he isn't talking about himself) and his refusal of charity. On two occasions he turned in billfolds full of money that had been mislaid by passengers. Airline and airport personnel push meal vouchers on him so he can eat. "French fries are my favorite," he confides. "It's not a very healthy diet, but I get enough."
On 17 September 1999, an international travel card and a French residency permit were put into Nasseri's hands. With them, he's now free to leave the airport, either to take up residency in France or to fly to another country that will allow him entry.
He refuses to sign them, however, because they list his nationality as Iranian, and he wants it listed as British. He remains at Charles de Gaulle airport, using the excuse that he's determined to stick to this point rather than face life outside the terminal:
[In 1999] he finally got permission to leave the airport — in fact, he can now go wherever he likes in Europe. The problem is, he no longer wants to. "He is scared to leave this bubble world he has been living in," said Dr. Philippe Bargain, the airport's medical director. "Finally getting the papers has been a huge shock to him, as if he was just thrown from his horse. When you wait 11 years for something and suddenly in a few minutes you sign some papers and it's done — imagine what a shock that is." "He will have to be weaned from the airport, like an addict really." Dr. Bargain said. "Still, it does make you wonder what kind of a society we live in that this can happen to a man."3 As of the summer of 2004, Nasseri is still living in the airport. He does not lack for money — Dreamworks paid him a rumored $250,000 for the rights to his story.
Interesting stuff eh?