Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived in Terminal 1 of Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG)  from 1988 to 2006 and whose intriguing tale inspired the 2004 Steven Spielberg film “The Terminal,” died on Saturday in the same airport where he had become famous.

Airport officials believe that Mr. Nasseri was born in Iran in 1945 in the town of Masjid-i-Sulaiman.  Nasseri’s father was Britsh.  His mother was Iranian.  In 1974, Nasseri began studies in England. When he returned to Iran in 1977, he was imprisoned and then exiled without a passport for protests against the Shah.  He traveled around Europe with temporary refugee status until Belgium granted him official refugee status in 1981. Mr. Nasseri traveled to Britain and France with that status until 1988.  That’s when things seemingly went from bad to worse.

Nasseri arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport intending to fly to London on a one-way ticket.  He told authorities that his papers had been stolen at a Paris train station. Waiving the usual rules, the authorities let him fly to London Heathrow Airport (LHR).  British immigration refused to let him enter the country and sent him back to CDG.

Mr. Nasseri could not prove who he was or offer proof of his refugee status, so he moved into a holding area in the airport for travelers without papers.  While he spent several stays there, Nasseri was spent most of the 18 years in the public area of the airport and was always free to move around.

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Mr. Nasseri sleeping in Terminal 1 in 2004. Credit:  Stephane De Sakutin/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In the 1990s, French authorities insisted that Mr. Nasseri was on French soil illegally, but they could not deport him because no country would accept him. In 1999, he finally received permission to leave the airport and go wherever he wished in Europe. But he preferred to stay at CDG where he had become a mini celebrity and garnered support from the whole airport community.  Airport and airline employees provided him with meal vouchers and items from first class amenity kits.  He left the airport in 2006 for reasons that are unclear.

The New York Times story states:

He had made a home at Charles de Gaulle: Airport employees would call him Alfred or Sir, Alfred — a nickname rooted in a mistake that appeared in a letter from British immigration officials. He would wash up in the passenger bathrooms and take his clothes to the cleaner at the airport.

As his story spread throughout French news media and then to outlets across the world, reporters noticed the enthusiasm with which Mr. Nasseri would speak about the airport.

His residence there appeared to depend on the kindness of strangers. People who heard his story sent him money in the mail. A traveler once gave him a sleeping bag and a camping mattress.

After living in a nursing home in Paris, Nasseri chose to return to CDG in September 2022 to live as a homeless person.  Airport officials said that he suffered a heart attack and died on November 12 in CDG Terminal 2F.  He was treated by police and an airport medical team but they could not revive him.

Thoughts

This story evokes varied emotions. It is sad that Mr. Nasseri’s life in Charles de Gaulle International Airport may indicate that he suffered from psychological issues of some kind, but it appears that he was content there. In that sense, CDG was the perfect place for his end of life transition. CDG employees who treated Nasseri with kindness and compassion during his stays honored his humanity and their own.

An interesting and clever version of Mr. Nassari’s experience and “The Terminal” are several cases in the U.S. where people visit airport lounges every day for free food and drinks. To get through security to airside airport lounges people need a boarding pass although there are ways around that, too. Lounge abusers get a boarding pass by purchasing a fully refundable ticket. They go to a lounge to eat and drink their fill then cancel that ticket and receive a full refund. Eventually, lounges and airlines catch on.

I missed seeing “The Terminal” when it came out. I’m keeping an eye out for in reruns.