By Ray Moseley Chicago Tribune
LONDON -- For many people, time spent in an airport can be a nightmare. For Merhan Karimi Nasseri, that is literally so.
For 11 years he has lived in Paris' Charles de Gaulle Airport, watching millions of travelers come and go while he has been a prisoner of the airport. In all that time, he has never been able to go outside to inhale a breath of fresh air.
Nasseri, 54, an Iranian exile, was technically expelled from France in 1988 because he had lost a Belgian-issued refugee document and could not justify his status to French authorities while enrolled as a student in Paris.
But the French found that no other country would take him, so authorities allowed him to stay in Terminal 1 of the airport.
And there he has remained, bedding down at night on a red plastic bench beside the Paris Bye Bye cafeteria in the noisy departure lounge shopping mall. He spends his days at a tiny table in the cafeteria, living on hamburgers and writing a daily diary about his troubles.
But now Nasseri finally has the documents he needs to make him a free man. All he has to do is sign them and go where he likes. The only problem is, he won't do it.
Dr. Philippe Bargain, the airport's chief medical officer, last weekend presented Nasseri an international travel card and a French residency permit, documents he had been fighting for years to obtain.
Nasseri simply smiled, tucked the documents into a folder and got on with his diary.
"He has been badly affected by all this," Bargain said, shaking his head. "Now we have to try and get him out of here. This breakthrough is difficult for him to take in, all in one go. The fact is there is no longer any reason now for him to be here."
Nasseri is known affectionately to airport staff as Sir Alfred, a result of his repeated attempts to enter Britain.
"The UK immigration forms offer a space for an adopted name, and I chose Alfred because I thought it sounded nice," Nasseri said. "One day I got a letter back from them addressed to me as `Dear Sir, Alfred,' and so it just stuck."
Nasseri, who suffers from mental confusion because of his long ordeal, said he would not sign the documents that Bargain handed him because they refer to him as an Iranian.
"He blames Iran for many of his problems," Bargain said. "We have to convince him to sign. It is a ridiculous situation."
Nasseri's French lawyer, Christian Bourguet, who played a role in 1980 negotiations to free U.S. hostages held in Iran after the revolution there, said, "It has been a most scandalous and unbelievable saga of bureaucratic mischief."
He said the Belgians had, for years, refused to acknowledge having issued the documents that Nasseri lost. When they finally did, they presented him a Catch-22 situation: He had to go to Belgium to retrieve copies in person. But he couldn't because he had no travel permit and couldn't get one without the documents.
In July, the Belgians finally agreed to send him a copy of his refugee card, allowing him to apply for a French residency permit and an international travel card.
During his long stay in the airport, Nasseri has gotten by with handouts from airport staff. He washes himself and cleans his few clothes in airport restrooms. He writes his diary in English and reads mail-order books paid for by Bargain.
"I prefer to read factual books, about economics, politics or psychology," he said. His favorite reading is an account of the life of the late Princess Diana.
He sometimes "exercises" by strolling a few yards among travelers, but never far because he fears that his few possessions might be stolen.
According to Nasseri's lawyer, his client's ordeal began when he was disinherited by his Iranian family. He was the child of an unmarried couple, an Iranian doctor and a foreign nurse, both of whom worked for the former Anglo-Iranian Oil Co. When the doctor died, Nasseri was disinherited, the lawyer said.
Nasseri went to London to study and joined in protests against Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi. When he returned to Iran, before the Shah's overthrow in 1979, he was imprisoned and then exiled. He traveled around Europe until he was given refugee status by Belgium.
"The main thing I want is to find my mother and to discover who I really am," said Nasseri, who believes his mother is Scottish.
Bargain said he has had to treat Nasseri only once since 1988 -- for a toe infection. "This is the living proof that man can survive in an airport," he said.
Bargain has begun contacting refugee associations to try to find Nasseri a hostel and help him return to normal life.
"He needs to be looked after, to be coaxed back into the outside world," Bargain said. "But we will not force him to leave."
"I still have no money to pay for a room or for shopping," Nasseri said. "I must wait here for a bit."
1999, Chicago Tribune. http://www.chicago.tribune.com/