Iranian man left in legal limbo for years dies at Paris airport, where he lived for nearly 2 decades


An Iranian who lived for 18 years at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris and whose saga loosely inspired Steven Spielberg’s film The terminal died Saturday at the airport he long called home, officials said.

Mehran Karimi Nasseri died of a heart attack in the airport’s terminal 2F around noon, according to a Paris airport official. Police and a medical team treated him but could not save him, the official said. The official was not authorized to be publicly named.

Nasseri, believed to be in his late 70s, lived in Terminal 1 at the airport from 1988 to 2006, first in legal limbo because he lacked residency papers and later by apparent choice .

Year after year, he slept on a red plastic bench, befriended airport workers, showered in staff facilities, wrote in his diary, read magazines, and watched passing travelers.

The staff nicknamed him Lord Alfred and he became a mini-celebrity among the passengers.

“Eventually I will leave the airport,” he told The Associated Press in 1999, smoking a pipe on his bench, looking frail with long fine hair, sunken eyes and sunken cheeks. “But I’m still waiting for a passport or a transit visa.”

Nasseri was born in 1945 in Soleiman, a part of Iran then under British jurisdiction, to an Iranian father and a British mother. He left Iran to study in England in 1974. Upon his return, he said, he was imprisoned for protesting against the shah and deported without a passport.

He requested political asylum in several European countries. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Belgium issued him a refugee certificate, but Nasseri said his briefcase containing the refugee certificate was stolen from a Paris train station.

The French police then arrested him, but they couldn’t deport him anywhere because he had no official documents. He found himself at Charles de Gaulle in August 1988 and stayed there.

Nasseri stands next to a movie poster for The Terminal at Charles de Gaulle airport, August 12, 2004. The Hollywood film, which starred Tom Hanks, earned Nasseri some US$300,000 but didn’t failed to tempt him to leave his airport shelter. (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Further bureaucratic blunders and increasingly strict European immigration laws kept him in a legal no-man’s land for years.

When Nasseri finally received the refugee papers, he described his surprise – and insecurity – at the thought of leaving the airport. He reportedly refused to sign the documents and ended up staying there for several more years until he was hospitalized in 2006. He then lived in a Parisian refuge.

Years of life at the airport took a mental toll

Those who befriended Nasseri at the airport said the years spent in that windowless space had taken a toll on his mental state. The 1990s airport doctor worried about his physical and mental health and described him as “fossilized here”. A ticket agent friend compares him to a prisoner unable to “live outside”.

In the weeks leading up to his death, he had again lived at Charles de Gaulle, the airport official said.

Nasseri’s jaw-dropping story loosely inspired Spielberg’s 2004 film The terminal with Tom Hanks, as well as a French film, lost in transitand an opera titled Flight.

In The terminal, Hanks plays Viktor Navorski, a man who arrives at JFK airport in New York from the fictional Eastern European country of Krakozhia and finds that an overnight political revolution has invalidated his travel papers. Viktor is thrown into the airport’s international lounge and told he must stay there until his status is sorted out, which drags on as the unrest in Krakozhia continues.

No information was immediately available on Nasseri’s survivors.


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