He liked to be called ‘Sir Alfred’, Tom Hanks played him in a movie, The Terminal, and he was known around the world as the man who had lived in an airport for 18 years.
And this week, Mehran Karimi Nasseri, died in that very same airport, Charles de Gaulle in Paris, where he had once again been living before his death.
Airport officials believed Nasseri had been born in Masjid-i-Sulaiman, in Iran in 1945. He originally traveled to Europe to find his mother but upon his return he was exiled from Iran for anti-government protests.
He bounced around Europe and spent a few years in Belgium under refugee status but was expelled from the U.K., the Netherlands and Germany, because he did not have the right paperwork—something that would become all too familiar to him.
On one journey in 1988, he traveled from Charles de Gaulle airport to Britain on a one-way ticket with not more than $500, some clothes—and crucially, no passport. The French authorities waived the rules and let him travel to the U.K., but British customs would not let him into the country and they sent him back.
Upon his return to Charles de Gaulle airport, Nasseri did not have any supporting paperwork to say who he was or to which country he belonged—and he began living at the airport, in terminal 2F. Whilst the French authorities declared him to be in France illegally, because no country would take him he lived in legal limbo, a story that would be picked up by Steven Spielberg for his 2004 movie, The Terminal, starring Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta Jones.
He was reportedly fastidious about cleanliness and washed himself in the bathrooms before the airport got busy in the mornings and the airport cleaner would wash his clothes.
Charles de Gaulle airport issued a statement on Sunday saying that the airport staff and community had looked after Nasseri “as much as possible for many years” but that it had been difficult due to his psychological problems. In 1999, he was legally allowed to leave the airport and stay in France as he was granted refugee status but he reportedly had little desire to leave and stayed until 2006.
The airport’s medical director, Dr. Philippe Bargain, said at the time, “when you wait 11 years for something and suddenly in a few minutes you sign some papers and it’s done—imagine what a shock that is.”
With the proceeds from the film he moved into a hostel after being treated in hospital but he had returned to live at Charles de Gaulle airport in recent weeks. An airport official reported that when he died, he had a few thousand euros in his belongings, but he chose to return to the place where he had spent so much time. He always spoke of the airport and its travelers with fondness, spending his days reading newspapers and writing in his journal, watching the world pass him by.