Man in limbo for years in Paris airport has died – in his airport

AP Photo/Michel Euler, File
Merhan Karimi Nasseri sits among his belongings at Terminal 1 of Roissy Charles De Gaulle Airport, north of Paris on Aug. 11, 2004 .

The 77-year-old Iranian refugee whose ordeal inspired the 2004 movie “The Terminal” died Saturday inside the Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport, where he had previously lived for 18 years.

Mehran Karimi Nasseri died around noon local time of a heart attack, a spokesperson for the Paris airport authority said Sunday. “He was an iconic, charismatic character. There is a lot of emotion at the airport in the wake of his death.”

Nasseri was beloved by airport staff, who mourned his passing this weekend, the spokesperson said.

The 2004 Steven Spielberg film, set at JFK International Airport in New York, starred Tom Hanks as an Eastern European man who gets stuck in the transit zone after a coup in his fictitious home country upends his legal status. In the end, the protagonist leaves the airport, briefly fulfills his father’s mission and then heads home.

But Nasseri’s decades-long immigration struggles were far more complicated. Over the years, he provided some conflicting details of his life, but ultimately there was no Hollywood ending.

Nasseri was either exiled or fled political turmoil in Iran in the 1970s and settled in Belgium for many years. He was reportedly bent on finding his British mother and tried to travel elsewhere in Europe, only to be repeatedly expelled from several countries for lacking the required immigration documents, according to the BBC.

In 1988, French authorities stopped him at the Paris airport as he tried to pass through without identity papers, which he said had been stolen. Authorities held him for several days in limbo in a transit zone, and then released him into one of Charles de Gaulle’s terminals.

Caught in an immigration trap, he soon set up a makeshift home of his own in the airport and lived for many years in Terminal 1.

He became the subject of news articles and at least two movies. His airport home became a media sensation after the 2004 release of “The Terminal.” DreamWorks reportedly paid him several hundred thousand dollars for the rights to his story.

By 1999, France offered him a residency permit. But he continued to live inside the airport until 2006. After leaving the airport, he appeared to struggle to adapt to outside life.

“The reality is that he had psychological problems,” the airport spokesperson said. “He was a homeless person who was taken care of by the airport community and doctors.”

The spokesperson said that Nasseri had returned to the airport’s 2F Terminal in mid-September, after leaving a care home where he had been staying.

“Many people went to great lengths to have him hospitalized and put into a care home adapted to his needs,” the spokesperson said.

Other refugees have found themselves in similar situations, though none for such a long time.

In 2018, a Syrian man lived in a Malaysian airport for seven months before Canada took him in. He was caught without a legal place to stay while being unable to return home to his war-torn country.