Edward Snowden Joins the Exclusive ‘Stuck in the Airport’ Club
Nina Strochlic on people who have lived in airports and why they did it.
On-the-run NSA leaker Edward Snowden made a dash from his refuge in Hong Kong and is now reportedly biding his time in the transit lounge of Moscow’s Sheremetyevo airport. But he isn’t the only one to make an airport his home while trying to plot a next move. From the man who spent 18 years in Charles de Gaulle airport and inspired Tom Hanks's role in The Terminal to a mysterious Sri Lankan who disappeared after four months of waiting in Venezuela, here are six other men and women who, for various reasons, have found themselves stuck in an awkward state of limbo inside the airport.
Mehran Karimi Nasseri
If an Iranian political refugee stuck in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport for nearly 18 years sounds like cinema-worthy drama, that’s because you might recognize it as the basis of Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal. Mehran Karimi Nasseri, who called himself “Sir, Alfred” (the comma was a mistake from British immigration) became the world’s most well-known airport dweller when, unable to get papers to leave or enter France, he resided on a bench, surrounded by his belongings, in the basement shopping mall of Terminal One from August 1988 to July 2006. Originally expelled for speaking against the Shah, Nasseri sought political asylum in various countries, and was eventually taken in by Belgium in the early ’80s. Unfortunately, en route to find family in England, his documents were stolen and he ended up detained in Paris, legally a refugee, but unable to get back to Belgium or onto French soil without visas. In 2006, Nasseri was hospitalized for an unknown reason, and was then taken in by the French Red Cross. When Spielberg got wind of Nasseri’s plight, Dreamworks reportedly paid Nasseri $300,000 for his rights and used it as inspiration for The Terminal, which starred Tom Hanks as a traveler stuck at JFK and unable to return back to his country due to a revolution. Nasseri’s story was similarly immortalized by a number of feature films, documentaries, articles, and books, but the enigmatic man himself slipped under the radar. As of 2008, he was reported to be living in a Parisian homeless shelter.
Chinese human-rights activist Feng Zhenghu spent 92 days in Tokyo’s international airport in 2009 after fruitlessly attempting to return to China eight times. Four of those times, he made it as far as the Shanghai airport, but was stopped and sent back to Tokyo. Finally, in November 2009, he refused to leave Japan’s Narita airport, telling the Associated Press, “I want to go back to China. I have no reason to stay in Japan.” Zhenghu suspected China disapproved of his activist record, and began walking up and down the terminals in a shirt explaining that he was a Chinese citizen refused entry back into his homeland. He even began tweeting and blogging about his life in the airport. He was finally allowed into China, but two years later, the dissident was placed under house arrest in Shanghai.
For four months during the spring of 2012, a Sri Lankan man passed the time in Gate 22 of Venezuela’s Simón Bolívar International Airport, sleeping on the floor and bathing in restrooms. Known only as Parameswaran, he was discovered in the international terminal by an Argentine reggae band, which posted a video of him on YouTube. Limited information was known about the man, who spoke little Spanish and no English; he was mistakenly deported to Venezuela from Mexico, but was unable to return to his country because of an armed conflict in the region. Without a Sri Lankan consulate in Venezuela, officials were unable to begin the process of returning him to his home country, and Parameswaran was left seemingly helpless, save for the contributions of a bed and food by airline officials and a human-rights NGO. Then, in late May, the Sri Lankan refugee disappeared and authorities were unable to say if he was allowed in or sent home.
Gary Peter Austin
This past December, British racehorse jockey Gary Peter Austin arrived at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila, Philippines, only to find out his return ticket had been canceled by his travel agency. Without money to purchase a new flight, Austin spent 25 days sleeping in the terminal chairs and eating food donated by passengers and airline employees. After his story became public, a generous benefactor bought him a new ticket, and Austin returned home—but not before promising to support the Filipino janitor who leaked his story to the media (and telling another janitor she could be the “perfect wife”). Guess you can truly find love in the strangest places.
In 2010, an Indian woman died after losing her passport in and spending five days stuck in the transit lounge of Muscat International Airport in Oman’s capital. Beebi Lumada was en route to Chennai when she lost her passport in Qatar’s Doha International Airport. Without her travel documents, Lumada was sent back to her point of departure, Muscat, where she had been working as a maid. When she arrived with no exit pass, immigration officials denied her entry back into Muscat. According to an airport official who spoke to Gulf News after the incident, the 40-year-old woman became delusional, and despite being taken care of by airport staff, her condition worsened. She was in an ambulance on her way to a hospital when she died of cardiac arrest possibly due to severe mental trauma, a senior doctor told the news site. She had reportedly suffered from hysteria and strokes in the past. In the aftermath, Oman’s airline officials pointed fingers of blame at the Indian embassy, saying it was supposed to get her, while the Indian embassy pointed back at airline officials, asserting they were told the woman would be brought to the embassy to acquire a new exit pass.
For 400 days, Kenyan citizen Sanjay Shah wandered the Nairobi airport, subsiding on food given to him by café employees and washing in the airport restrooms. After renouncing his Kenyan citizenship, Sanjay Shah had flown to the U.K., only to be refused entry at Heathrow and sent back to Kenya. Fearing arrest if he tried to reenter his country of origin, Shah stayed in Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta International Airport for 13 months, splitting his days between the departure lounges and the immigration counters. In July 2005, he was granted British citizenship and returned to England.