Airports are known for being a bizarre, timeless environment—spoons trips can be at any hour of the day and coffee is in no short supply. However, it’s by no means somewhere we would want to live. Mehran Karimi Nasseri lived in this strange purgatory between territories for 18 years and is known as the world’s loneliest man. Victoria Mileson tells us more.
Born in 1946, Mehran Karimi Nasseri is an Iranian refugee who lived in the departure lounge of Terminal One in Charles de Gaulle Airport from August 1988 until July 2006. He inspired the film, ‘The Terminal’, starring Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg.
Nasseri, also known as Sir Alfred Mehran, alleges that he was expelled from Iran in 1977 for protesting the Shah while studying at the University of Bradford. He was eventually awarded refugee status by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Belgium.
From Belgium, he decided to head to the UK. When his father passed away, his mother revealed that she wasn’t his mother after all and that his whole life was a lie to protect his father’s adultery. It was revealed his real mother was a Scottish nurse, and it became his mission to find her.
he had no country of origin to return to
Unfortunately, he lost his refugee papers en-route in 1988. He boarded his plane to France, where his layover was, but failed to present his refugee papers upon arrival. He was arrested by the French for trying to unlawfully enter the country but given that airports are seen as an international territory, thus began his residence in Terminal One. He made it out of Iran but wouldn’t be able to leave the walls of the airport until he could prove he was legal, an impossible task. He had no country of origin to return to—Iran had disowned him.
His case was taken on by a human rights lawyer, Christian Bourguet, in 1992. For Nasseri to get new papers stating he was a refugee, he needed to go to Belgium. However, not being able to leave the airport would mean he would never make it to Belgium.
sometimes he claimed that his Scottish mother was in fact an aristocrat
His lawyer pursued the issue for over ten years and finally convinced Belgium to send the replacement papers to Nasseri in 1999. It all seemed to be working out until the papers arrived that would allow him to stay in France, outside the walls of the airport. Nasseri believed them to be fake so refused to sign them.
It seemed nobody really knew who Sir Alfred was, even himself—his account of events kept changing. Sometimes he claimed that his Scottish mother was in fact an aristocrat and around the airport they called him “the secret child of the Queen of England.” He lived off the kindness of strangers, eating most of his meals at the airport’s McDonald’s and sleeping on a red bench in front of a music shop.
During his life at the airport, he missed a lot: 9/11, Thatcher, the fall of Communism and the AIDS crisis. He became a star at the airport and leaving was more than a matter of finally getting what he wanted—he had made himself a new home in Terminal One. In the end, he left the airport after contracting an unknown illness and needing hospital attention in 2006. After being cared for by the French Red Cross, he was transferred to a homeless shelter in Paris.
His story inspired ‘The Terminal’, which was released while he was still stuck at the airport. He received over $300,000 for the rights to his story and rumour has it that he used the money to finally get the British citizenship that he had waited two decades for.
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