The Terminal, the true story of the political refugee who inspired the film with Tom Hanks

The Terminal, the famous film by Steven Spielberg starring Tom Hanks, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Stanley Tucci was released in 2004, but behind the absurd story of Viktor Navorski there is a news story. The film, in fact, is inspired by the true story of an Iranian political refugee: Mehran Karimi Nasseri. 35 years have passed since the man arrived at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, exactly on August 26, 1988, where he lived for about 18 years. Spielberg’s work actually has many differences from what actually happened: Karimi’s name is not mentioned in any advertising material relating to the film, but her story was still used by the director as a basis for making the moving and entertaining film presented as the opening film at the 61st Venice International Film Festival. Here’s what really happened 35 years ago.

Who was Mehran Karimi Nasseri

Mehran Karimi Nasseri was born in Masjed-e Soleyman in 1945 and moved to England in 1973 to study at the University of Bradford. In 1976 he returned to Iran taking part in the front line protests against the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. According to Nasseri, he was arrested for his activism and expelled from the country after four months of detention. The investigations, however, found no response as no expulsion order from the national territory resulted. However, the man tried to emigrate to the United Kingdom which, however, refused him political asylum. He then began to wander around Europe until, in 1981, he obtained a refugee card from the Belgian authorities. With papers in order he tried again to enter Britain, but was rejected and found himself without papers because he had sent them to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Brussels.

The disappearance and reappearance of Nasseri at Charles De Gaulle airport

In the 1980s, Nasseri began to show the first signs of mental decline. He started calling himself “Sir Alfred Mehram” and claiming ignorance of who Mehran Karimi Nasseri was to whom his documents belonged. After a failed entry attempt into France in 1985, he lost track of him. On August 26, 1988, he was finally found in Terminal 1 of Charles de Gaulle airport, still trying to embark for England. From that moment he remained at the airport for years in a situation of “juridical limbo”, deriving from a vicious circle of the entry procedures of the States involved. The regularization of the residence permit depended on his refugee card, granted to him by the Belgian government. The latter asked that Nasseri himself go and collect it, but he could not leave France because his documents were abroad. In 1999 the situation seemed to unblock itself when he was accompanied to the Bobigny court to collect his documents. Nasseri, however, on that occasion claimed that the documents were wrong and declared: “They are not in my name. I am no longer what I was. My name is now Sir Alfred Merhan and I am not Iranian. My father was Swedish and my mother Danish”. He therefore returned to stay at terminal 1 of the Paris airport until July 2006 when he was hospitalized due to food poisoning. Once discharged, he was taken over by the Charles De Gaulle French Red Cross, staying in a hotel near the airport before being transferred, in March 2007, to a reception center in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. A few weeks before his death on November 12, 2022, he returned to reside at the airport.

Life at the airport and what happened after the film was released

In the years spent at the airport, Mehran Karimi Nasseri had everything he could possibly need: food, lodging and the airport’s ironing and dry cleaners who treated him with special care. Thanks to the rights to his story about him Mehran Karimi Nasseri earned some money and for a while, right after the release of Spielberg’s film, he was interviewed by newspapers all over the world. The interviews were done from the red couch in the corner in Terminal 1 that had become his home. Thanks to the money earned, the Iranian refugee would have lived for a while in a hotel room and, shortly before he died, would have returned to the terminal because his savings would have run out, even if a few thousand euros would have been found in his pockets. However, there is no certain information on this part of the story and it is not clear who paid for the maintenance and stay of the man in the Paris shelter. Of course, the movie The Terminal by Steven Spielberg made the story of the Iranian refugee known to audiences around the world even though the film is quite different from the real life of Nasseri.

The story told in The Terminal

The plot of The Terminal by Steven Spielberg is very different from Nasseri’s story, despite the fact that the director took his cue for the film from the story of the Iranian refugee. In the film the protagonist is Viktor Navorski, who comes from an imaginary Eastern European country, Krakozhia. While he is on his way to the United States, a ferocious coup d’état takes place at home which makes his passport totally null and void. Landed at JF Kennedy airport in New York, Navorski is then blocked and forced by the head of security to remain inside the terminal for an unspecified period. Here begins a forced and surreal stay that leads him to experience friendship, love and solidarity on the part of the people he meets inside the airport.