A refugee with no paperwork, Mehran Karimi Nasseri had nowhere to go to and nowhere to go back to.
If you happened to pass through Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle International Airport between August 26, 1988 and July 2006, you may have spotted Mehran Karimi Nasseri. If you thought he was just another passenger waiting to catch a flight, you’d only be part right. Though it’s true Nasseri’s plan was to travel to the United Kingdom, a combination of laws and lack of documentation left the Iranian refugee confined to the terminal for 18 years.
The beginning of Mehran Karimi Nasseri’s story is hard to trace—even Nasseri claimed different origins throughout time. What’s indisputably true is that for almost 18 years with his personal belongings by his side, Mehran Karimi Nasseri lived in the terminal of a Paris airport.
Mehran Karimi Nasseri’s Take Off
Born in Masjed Soleiman, Iran in 1943, Nasseri traveled to the United Kingdom in 1973 to study at the University of Bradford. As a student, he reportedly participated in protests against Shah Reza Pahlavi, the lash Shah of Iran.
When he returned to Iran in 1977, Nasseri said he was imprisoned and then exiled for antigovernment activity.
Mehran Karimi Nasseri requested political asylum from Iran and after being denied by capitals across Europe for four years, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Belgium finally gave him official refugee status in 1981.
Nasseri’s refugee credentials allowed him to seek citizenship in a European country; he claimed his mother was British and, after spending years in Belgium, he decided in 1986 to settle in the U.K. But the ride ahead wouldn’t be a smooth one.
The Ultimate Airport Delay
He traveled to London via Paris in 1988. The story (and much of Nasseri’s documented history) gets murky at this point. Nasseri asserted that his briefcase, containing his refugee documents, were stolen on a train in Paris. So when he arrived at London’s Heathrow Airport, passport control sent him back to France.
Initially Nasseri was arrested by French police. Yet his entry into the airport was actually legal, so he was released. However, he could not leave the airport.
With no paperwork and no country of origin to return to, Mehran Karimi Nasseri’s residency at Terminal 1 in France’s Charles de Gaulle International Airport began.
Nasseri’s stay went from days to weeks to years. With his luggage by his side, he spent his time reading, studying economics, and chronicling his experience in a sprawling diary that came to be over 1,000 pages long.
He ate regularly at the McDonald’s in the food court. He rolled Pall Mall cigarettes for himself. Airport employees saw Nasseri as a staple of the terminal and brought him newspapers and food.
Keeping a well-groomed disposition, Nasseri washed in the men’s room and sent his clothes to the dry cleaners.
Meanwhile, Nasseri’s situation was picked up internationally as journalists from all over visited the airport to interview him.
Regular citizens sent him encouraging letters. One read, “Please let him know that we are hopeful that he will have a safe, comfortable and happy future. Sincerely yours, A Concerned American Citizen.” Attached was a money order for $100 that Dr. Philippe Bargain, the airport’s chief medical officer, cashed for Nasseri.
A Fight For Nasseri’s Freedom Takes Flight
Nasseri also caught the attention of the French human rights lawyer Christian Bourguet.
Bourguet became Nasseri’s longtime lawyer. If Belgium could be persuaded to issue new documents, Nasseri could once again be identified as someone. But Belgium could only reissue the documents if Nasseri presented himself in person. And the problem was two-fold: he couldn’t travel to get documentation without having documentation; and Belgian law stated that a refugee who left the country after being accepted couldn’t return.
Finally in 1999, the Belgian government agreed to send Nasseri’s papers through the mail and the French authorities gave him a residence permit. But Bargain said Nasseri “wasn’t happy. He said he thought the papers were fake.”
Nasseri said that back at Heathrow in 1981, he was given papers with the name Sir Alfred Mehran and a British nationality. The name on the papers he received in 1999 had his original name, Mehran Karimi Nasseri, and listed him as Iranian.
Bargain said that Bourguet, the lawyer “who had spent 10 years trying to help him, nearly choked.”
So Mehran Karimi Nasseri – or Sir Alfred Mehran – remained at terminal one.
Mehran Karimi Nasseri Finally Departs (Though Not On A Plane)
Simply signing the papers and then having his name legally changed after may have seemed like the reasonable solution. But as it turns out, living in an airport for years can take a strange psychological toll on a person.
In a 2003 interview with GQ, Bourguet said perhaps Nasseri was crazy now, but argued, “He’d arrived there by several steps.”
Bourguet said that Nasseri was “quite lucid in the telling of his story, but that over time he had become ‘free of logic,’ and so his story kept changing.” One time Nasseri said he was Swedish, to which Bourguet asked how he got from Sweden to Iran. Nasseri replied, “Submarine.”
In 2006, Mehran Karimi Nasseri was hospitalized for an undisclosed ailment, ending his extended stay at Charles de Gaulle International Airport. He was reportedly released from the hospital in 2007 and put up in a hotel near the airport.
Though he didn’t get a flight to London, he was granted freedom in France. As of 2008, he was living in a shelter in the Parisian suburbs while his story became the inspiration for the 2004 Steven Spielberg film The Terminal.