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The Longest Layover Ever? Sir Alfred Was Stuck In An Airport For 18 Years

Madeline Hiltz
(Photo Credit: Eric Fougere/ Getty Images and Universal Studios/ Dreamworks Pictures/ MovieStills DB)

Did you know the the movie The Terminal is based on a real person, because I sure didn’t! Most people hate being stuck in an airport for even an hour, but for a rare few like Iranian Mehran Karimi Nasseri, (also known as Sir Alfred) the Charles de Gaulle airport was home. Your read that right- not feels like home, but was home. Mehran Karimi Nasseri lived in Terminal One in Charles de Gaulle Airport for nearly two decades between 1988 and 2006.

Who is Sir Alfred?

Mehran Karimi Nasseri looking at monitors

Mehran Karimi Nasseri examines monitors in Terminal One of the Charles De Gaulle airport, circa 2004. (Photo Credit: STEPHANE DE SAKUTIN/ Getty Images)

Answering this question proves difficult. No one, not even Sir Alfred himself, knows his history. He was born in the Anglo-Persian Oil Company settlement located in Masjed Soleiman, Iran, in 1945, or 1947, or 1953. He has claimed to be Iranian, British, or Swedish. His father was an Iranian doctor working for the Oil Company. However, upon his father’s death in 1972, Sir Alfred’s family told him he was illegitimate and that his mother had been a Scottish nurse who worked for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company.

Due to his illegitimacy, his family rejected him after his father died. Alfred left home and went to study Yugoslav economics in northern England until 1974 when he returned to Iran. Upon his return, Alfred claims he got wrapped up in the anti-Shah demonstrations, which, according to Sir Alfred, resulted in him being arrested and tortured. Because of his political demonstrations and beliefs, he was stripped of his Iranian nationality and expelled from the country.

How did Sir Alfred wind up in Terminal One?

Nasseri with his belongings

Sir Alfred (Nasseri) with all his belongings outside of his make-shift home in Terminal One. (Photo Credit: Eric Fougere/ Getty Images)

Sir Alfred needed another country that would grant him refugee status, as he no longer had any national identity. He planned to travel to Glasgow in hopes of finding his Scottish birth mother, although he only had a slight idea of the potential name she was living under.

The first plane he boarded left Tehran headed for London. Over the next several years, Nasseri appealed to at least seven countries for asylum. It wasn’t until October 1981 that Belgium granted Nasseri asylum. At that point, he had been without a country for about four years, since 1977. Nasseri then spent the next six years living in Belgium, working at a library, studying, receiving social aid, and deciding where he wanted to settle. He eventually decided he had wanted to settle in the United Kingdom and set out for England via Paris, France.

Sir Alfred poses next to a Terminal poster

Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who prefers to be known as “Sir Alfred”, stands in front of a poster of Steven Spielberg’s movie “The Terminal” loosely based on his life in Charles de Gaulle Airport Terminal One where he has been living since 1988. (Photo Credit: Christophe Calais/Corbis via Getty Images)

It’s at this part of the story that things start to get a little hazy. According to some reports, Nasseri’s briefcase that contained his refugee documentation was stolen while traveling on a train in Paris. According to other accounts, Nasseri sent his documentation back to Brussels while on route to England, lying about them being stolen. Nonetheless, Nasseri still chose to board a plane for London without any documentation. As you might have guessed, this didn’t fly with the authorities and he was sent back to France from England.

So started a game of trans-national hot potato, with Nasseri as the potato being tossed around between countries. He was tossed back and forth between England, Belgium, and France, but no government wanted to deal with him. Eventually, he was once again sent back to France from England. At this point, he was out of options and out of money. And thus, his residency at Terminal One of the Charles de Gaulle Airport started.

77990 Mauregard, France- Sir Alfred’s new permanent address

Photo of Mehran Karimi Nasseri

Photo of Sir Alfred (Mehran Karimi Nasseri) circa 2004. (Photo Credit: Eric Fougere/ Getty Images)

Sir Alfred’s time living at Terminal One began on August 26, 1988. More specifically, he set up base on a red bench on the restaurant floor of Terminal One. All of Sir Alfred’s belongings were stacked around his bench backed into boxes, suitcases, and plastic bags. Alfred also had a pillow, blankets, and sheets and he would carefully make his bench-bed when he turned in each night. He passed his time in Terminal One by doing small jobs for money in the airport quarters, eating at different restaurants – primarily McDonald’s – and people watching.

In 1992 after residing in Terminal One for four years, Sir Alfred’s case was taken over by a French human rights lawyer named Christian Bourget. That same year, a French court ruled that Sir Alfred had entered France legally so he could not be evicted from the airport, but he also could not legally leave the airport, leaving Sir Alfred in perpetual limbo.

In 1999, Christian Bourget finally convinced Belgium to send Sir Alfred replacement papers that would have provided him with a permit to stay in France. Interestingly enough, when Sir Alfred received the paperwork he refused to sign it, believing it to be fake. With this refusal, he sealed his fate for another seven years until 2006. That year he was forced to leave the airport because he required a hospital visit. This was the first time he had left the airport since 1988.

Tom Hanks in the Terminal

Actor Tom Hanks in the 2004 movie The Terminal. (Photo Credit: Universal Studios/ Dreamworks Pictures/ MovieStills DB)

In 2004, Steven Spielberg released the Hollywood blockbuster film The Terminal starring Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks plays a man stuck at JFK in New York for nine months because he is denied entry to the United States after finding out his passport is not valid, but cannot return to his home country. The movie took its inspiration from Sir Alfred’s 18-year tenure at the Charles de Gaulle airport. Sir Alfred was not able to see the movie when it first came out because there is no movie theatre in the airport, but he was paid between $200,000-$300,000 for the story’s rights.

Sir Alfred no longer resides in Terminal One of the Charles de Gaulle Airport. After his hospitalization, he lived in a Paris shelter. Rumour has it that he perhaps has gone on to finally get his British citizenship. If Sir Alfred’s story teaches us anything it’s that a home can be made anywhere, and that we should keep official documentation very close to us while traveling.