Terminal dwellers: the stories of people living at the airport

For a few people throughout the history of commercial aviation, living in an airport was not the stuff of dreams but real life. Here are some of the world’s most famous airport inhabitants.

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In 2004, Steven Spielberg directed Tom Hanks in ‘The Terminal’, a comedy-drama about a man that get stuck living in New York’s JFK airport terminal for nine months, after becoming stateless due to the outbreak of a civil war in his fictionalised home country of Krakozhia.

The Terminal is not the only film about airport dwellers, but was actually preceded in 1993 by ‘Lost in Transit’, a French film about a man that, after losing his passport, spends a couple of days at a Paris airport, meeting people in a similar predicament.

Even though they are works of fiction, both films are loosely based on the life of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian man who lived for 18 years in Paris Charles de Gaulle’s Terminal One departure lounge.

Just like Karimi Nasseri, a few other people – including US whistle-blower Edward Snowden –have managed to live months or years inside airport terminals. Here are some of their stories.

Mehran Karimi Nasseri

Also known Sir Alfred, Mehran Karimi Nasseri became the world’s most famous airport dweller after living in Paris Charles de Gaulle airport from 26 August 1988 until July 2006.

The details of Karimi Nasseri’s story still remain blurry 15 years after it came to an end. As reported by many outlets, including a 2003 GQ article, his date of birth is not known. Some accounts state he was born in 1945, while others say it was 1947 or 1953.

As for his family history, he said he was the son of an Iranian doctor working for the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, but some of those details, specifically his mother’s nationality, remain unclear.

According to GQ, Karimi Nasseri left Iran for the UK after being told he was born as result of an affair between his father and a Scottish nurse.

In the UK, he studied Yugoslav Studies at the University of Bradford but, after incurring some economic and family problems, headed back to Tehran, where he was arrested for allegedly opposing the Shah’s regime.

After several applications for asylum, in 1981 Sir Alfred obtained his refugee status in Belgium, where he lived and studied. Around 1988, he decided to travel from Belgium to the UK to look for his birth mother but his documents were lost or stolen on the way, though this last detail was never clarified.

After a back-and-forth between the different countries, Sir Alfred boarded a plane from Charles de Gaulle with London as his destination, but was sent back to the French airport, which became his home for almost two decades.

He spent his life in the terminal with a collection of suitcases and boxes, surviving thanks to the help of passengers and staff while fighting for his case with the help of a French lawyer.

In 2006, Karimi Nasseri was allowed to leave the airport to go to a hospital after contracting an unknown illness. After being looked after by the French Red Cross, Sir Alfred was transferred to a homeless reception centre in Paris, where he has lived since 2008.

Picture of Merhan Karimi Nasseri taken at Charles de Gaulle airport in 2005.

Aditya Singh

Aditya Singh, a 36-year-old man from California, was arrested on 16 January after Chicago O’Hare airport authorities found that he had been living in a restricted area of the airport since 19 October 2020.
As reported by the Chicago Tribune, Singh was discovered by two United Airlines employees, who asked him for his identification. When he produced a misplaced badge that belonged to an operations manager, they decided to call the police.

Even though it’s still not known why Singh flew to Chicago, he told authorities that he was too scared of Covid-19 to fly back to his home in Orange County and decided to squat in the airport, receiving food form passengers.

After his arrest, Singh was charged with criminal trespass to a restricted airport area and misdemeanour theft. The conditions set by county judge Susana Ortiz were his barring from the airport and a $1,000 bail.

"The court finds these facts and circumstances quite shocking for the alleged period of time that this occurred," Judge Ortiz said at the time. "Based upon the need for airports to be absolutely secure so that people feel safe to travel, I do find those alleged actions do make him a danger to the community."

"While this incident remains under investigation, we have been able to determine that this gentleman did not pose a security risk to the airport or to the travelling public,” said the Chicago Department of Aviation. “We will continue to work with our law enforcement partners on a thorough investigation of this matter.”

As of 31 January, he still remained in police custody

Edward Snowden

After leaking classified National Security Agency information, US whistle-blower Edward Snowden quickly became one of the world’s most recognisable men.

Wanted in the US on espionage charges and with a cancelled US passport, Snowden flew from Hong Kong to Moscow on 23 June 2013 and requested temporary asylum. There, he made the revelations to British and American journalists.

On his arrival, he was not provided with Russian travel documents and remained in the airport’s transit zone for 40 days. According to several outlets, Snowden spent his time reading Russian literature and learning the Russian alphabet.

“It’s hard for him, when he’s always in a state of expectation,” the Guardian reported Snowden’s Russian lawyers as saying. “On the inside, Edward is absolutely independent, he absolutely follows his convictions.”

On 1 August, Russia granted Snowden temporary asylum, which was consequently renewed. On 2 November 2020, Snowden and his wife Lindsay were reportedly in the process of applying for their Russian citizenship after being granted permanent residence in October.

Edward Snowden pictured in Moscow in December 2013 after spending 40 days in Moscow airport's transit zone. Credit: Barton Gellman/Getty Images

Hiroshi Nohara

Tokyo resident Hiroshi Nohara spent four months at Mexico City’s Benito Juarez International Airport in 2008. Arriving in Mexico City on 2 September, the man remained in the hub for 117 days, after a short stay in a hotel.

Initially surviving with the help of passengers and airport staff, in those 117 days Nohara became famous, acquiring the status of a local celebrity.

The man never revealed the reasons why he settled down in the airport and on 28 December 2008 left his temporary home, leaving with a woman called Oyuki, who had invited him to stay with her in her Mexico City apartment.

It’s unclear what happened to Nohara after his departure from the airport, as he was on a six-month tourist visa and never revealed his future plans.

Zahra Kamalfar

After living for nine months inside Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport with her children, Iranian dissident Zahra Kamalfar arrived in Vancouver on 18 March 2007, after being granted refugee status in the country.

The human rights activist had fled Iran in April 2005 while on a two-day pass from jail, where she had been detained in July 2004 with her husband for attending a protest against the Iranian regime.

After learning that her husband had been executed in prison, Kamalfar fled her home country with her daughter Anna and son Davood. As reported by media outlets, Kamalfar and her children had lived in Sheremetyevo since the summer of 2006, after Russian authorities refused their entry into the country.

“I don’t know [how] to thank the Canadian Government for helping me,” she said after reuniting with her brother, who lived in Canada, for the first time in 14 years.