Merhan Karimi Nasseri at Charles de Gaulle airport, France, since 1988

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Merhan Karimi Nasseri at Charles de Gaulle airport, France, since 1988

This is one of those stories at first hearing one dismisses as "obviously an urban legend"; but it's not!

When I first read about this, in the late nineties, I was absolutely shocked by this tale. What sort of a mental scrambling would one undergo being confined in an airport for a decade (more now)? I've been stranded overnight at Heathrow; a decade?

But what really bothered me, once I got to thinking about this very early one morning, was that my mental picture of Mr. Nasseri seemed woefully incomplete without a picture of the man.

I spent a good bit of time (too much time!) surfing the 'net in hopes of tracking down his visage. Finally I succeeded. Below you see Merhan Karimi Nasseri at the Charles de Gaulle airport, aged 54. There was no credit given for the photo.

Mr. Nasseri's predicament was made into a movie in 1993 entitled Tombes du Ciel, starring Jean Rochefort, Ticky Holgado, and Marisa Paredes. Along the right-hand side of these paragraphs are two publicity items from that film.

Steven Spielberg's Terminal Update: April 2003. I've heard that Steven Spielberg is developing Mr. Nasseri's story into another movie, this one tentatively entitled "Terminal". At left is the only publicity item for this effort. No actors have as of yet been signed.

I hope Mr. Nasseri benefits from this in some humanitarian way: some money in a trust, a home, and some professional help. Of course, part of me hopes he'll also have some bit part in the film, but given his reputedly fragile mental condition that might be hoping for too much.

Be well, Mr. Nasseri. The next time I'm going to Europe and can swing through de Gaulle airport I'll stop on by. I wonder if I can call ahead to find out what he might want.


Update: August 2004 - someone anonymously sent me a photo of Mr. Nassari standing in front of a movie poster for "Terminal". Does this qualify as ironic? (The filename implies that this is a Reuters photograph; used without permission.)


Published on December 25, 1997, reprinted here without permission
by Elizabeth Neuffer, Boston Globe Staff

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.

Merhan Karimi Nasseri at age 54 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."

Nasseri is known for his honesty and 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."

According to Nasseri: "When I think about the past 10 years, I realize that it is all wasted time," he says softly in clear but accented English. "I would like to leave this airport, but I need to get my identity papers in order first. It's not a normal life to stay in the airport for so long. It gets boring."


Published on 14 July 1999, reprinted here without permission
by the staff of the Irish Examiner

Merhan Karimi Nasseri has waited patiently in Charles de Gaulle airport, sleeping on a red plastic bench, for the past 11 years, hoping for official political refugee status.

Now, the 54 year old Iranian native can leave his airport home, if he wants to. Belgium has granted him refugee credentials.

''We are very pleased for him,'' said Dominique Deladrier, the Belgian consul in Paris. ''If we had known the extent of his dilemma earlier, we could have straightened this out a long time ago.''

Mr Nasseri, frail with long thinning hair, sunken eyes and hollow cheeks, arrived at Charles de Gaulle in August 1988 after bouncing around Europe with no documents, a victim of bureaucratic bungling and string of bad luck.

Since then, Europe's increasingly strict immigration and refugee laws and Mr Nasseri's deteriorating mental state have kept him trapped in a sort of legal no man's land.

Those close to him say the years of living in the underground terminal the last seven of which he has spent without ever leaving the building have taken a serious toll on his mental state, and they doubt he will ever leave.

''I hope he will take off soon because it isn't normal or healthy to live underground in an airport terminal,'' said Philippe Bargain, the airport's doctor, who has tried to help Mr Nasseri. ''But the problem is that he is afraid to leave. He has become fossilised here.''

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees in Belgium granted Mr Nasseri refugee status July 2. The documents give him the immediate right to travel to Belgium, where he would be provided shelter and counselling by an aid organisation.

Mr Nasseri, nicknamed Alfred by the airport staff, says he was surprised when the papers were delivered to him by airport authorities. But he is clearly insecure about leaving the safety of Terminal One, where airport employees provide him with food, clothing and pocket change, and he has become a minor celebrity among passengers. ''Eventually, I will leave the airport,'' he said, smoking a pipe on his bench in the dimly lit airport terminal yesterday. ''But I am still waiting for a passport or transit visa.''

Mr Nasseri was born in Soleiman, a part of Iran then under British jurisdiction, to an Iranian father and a British mother. He grew up in Iran and came to England in 1974 as a student. When he returned to Iran, he was imprisoned for protesting against the shah and expelled without a passport.

He went to Europe, where he bounced around and applied for political asylum in several countries. In 1981, the UNHCR in Belgium gave him the refugee credentials, but his briefcase containing the refugee certificate was stolen in a Paris train station.

After seven years of circulating between Brussels and Paris, he tried to fly to London, but was turned back by immigration officers. French police arrested him, but because he had no official documents, there was no country to which he could be deported. He has been at the Paris airport ever since.

His daily routine consists of showering in staff facilities, writing in his diary ö now made up of about 8,000 loose leaf pages neatly stacked on a luggage cart, reading magazines and surveying passing travellers.

''He's a part of the airport now,'' said Ute Lamberton, a ticket agent for Lufthansa Airlines. ''He's like a prisoner told he is free after years in jail. I'm not sure he could make it on the outside.''

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