Mehran Karimi Nasseri: an unwitting ambassador for modern refugees

His troubled life and unresolved trauma trapped inside an airport for 18 years caught the attention of Hollywood, European governments and the world

Mehran Karimi Nasseri, in 2004, looks at a poster of a Steven Spielberg movie inspired by his life. AFP
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For a man who stayed on the same airport bench for 18 years, Mehran Karimi Nasseri made a remarkable global impact.

His story of legal limbo – it became the basis for two films and an opera – as a 21st-century refugee, and the physical and mental toll that status takes, brought all too rare attention to the chaos that almost 90 million forcibly displaced people live with in 2022.

Now, the plight of "Lord Alfred" – a nickname given to him by airport worker friends – is over, after he died of a heart attack on Saturday.

Nasseri was a product of tumultuous times. His difficulties started after, as he claimed, being arrested in Iran for protesting against the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. Nasseri said this led to his eventual expulsion from the country, without a passport.

As particularly intense anti-government protests rage in Iran today, some will be considering the same difficult decision to flee from home. Like him, they would be travelling into the unknown, as countries around the world, particularly in Europe which used to be sympathetic to refugees, struggle to fulfil their legal responsibilities to them.

Nasseri applied for political asylum in several European countries. The UNHCR in Belgium gave him refugee credentials, but he claimed they were then stolen in a train station. He was then arrested, but French authorities could not deport him without documents. So began his stay of almost two decades in Charles de Gaulle airport.

It was riddled with ambiguity, and many claimed he dithered and rejected legal solutions that were offered to him.

What is undeniable in this complex story is the severe mental burden it inflicted on him. When he finally received documents, he reportedly refused to sign them. Nasseri ended up staying several more years in the airport, eventually being taken to hospital and then to a Paris shelter in 2006.

There were many twists and turns to his journey, and never the clean resolution of a film ending. But when a loose version of the story did hit the big screen, audiences got a sense of the trauma faced by refugees and the undocumented, one that is impossible to imagine unless people are forced into it. In that sense, Nasseri, from his seat surrounded by littered magazines and clothes, did something hugely important.

But it left him broken. In the 1990s, an airport doctor described him as living in a "fossilised" state. Perhaps if he had had a quicker resolution to his ordeal he might have been able to live a fuller life in Paris, not a bizarre and taxing one in its airport.

While he did eventually get time in the outside world, the damage was already done. In the weeks before his death, Nasseri went back to live in the airport. On the surface it might seem a bizarre decision. But it was there that he had formed his closest bonds, with airport workers and travellers, and arguably where he carried out the difficult vocation hoisted on him by unforeseen circumstances: to raise awareness about refugee rights, and remind people that their struggle is based on more than legal treaties and passports. It is also about the mental and physical well-being of some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

Published: November 14, 2022, 3:00 AM
EDITORIAL