For 18 years, Mehran Karimi Nasseri was forced to reside in the international terminal of an airport. The story gained a lot of international awareness, and it even inspired the Steven Spielberg film starring Tom Hanks – The Terminal.
The details of how Nasseri’s journey began tend to vary somewhat, but the general notion is that it started as an effort to claim political asylum after some issues with his home country of Iran.
Life altering protest
Nasseri studied at the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom in the 1970s where he supposedly joined other students in protest against what later became the last Shah of Iran. Unimpressed with his actions, the Iranian government put Nasseri in jail when he returned home in 1977, and thereafter he was exiled for conspiring against the government.
For years Nasseri searched European countries that might give him political asylum, but only made progress when the United Nations provided assistance. He gained refugee status in 1981 from the Nigh Commissioner for Refugees, allowing him to apply for citizenship in a European country.
While attempting to settle down in the United Kingdom, Nasseri’s briefcase containing his refugee papers was lost along the way through France. The United Kingdom was forced to refuse Nasseri entry into the country, and he was sent back to France. After being arrested by French police, he was soon released as he hadn’t technically done anything illegal.
With the airport being considered as an international area where Nasseri could move about freely, the lack of necessary documentation meant that he wasn’t allowed to actually enter France outside of the terminal, and being a refugee meant that he couldn’t return to Iran either. That day in 1988 was the start of his 18 year stay in the airport.
Living in a terminal
Nasseri made use of the airport bathrooms to wash himself, he mostly ate at the McDonald’s, and the majority of his time he spent reading and watching passersby. After some time and with a fading hope of change, Nasseri’s case was brought to the attention of Christian Bourguet, a French human rights lawyer. Belgium – the nation that originally gave Nasseri his refugee papers – could only provide replacement documents if Nasseri was present in person, but of course he couldn’t be there to receive the papers because he needed those documents to travel. After a decade of fighting for Nasseri’s situation, in 1999 Bourguet eventually convinced Belgium to mail Nasseri his replacement documents.
However, Nasseri turned down the papers, thinking that they were fake. Nasseri was eventually hospitalized in 2006 after he became ill. He was released in 2007, and in 2008 he was believed to be residing in a shelter in Paris.