Hiroshi Nohara, AP
Early September, Mr. Nohara, a Japanese citizen, landed in Mexico City. We are now three months later, and he still hasn’t left the airport. He does have a return ticket and airport officials can’t really do anything about it until his tourist visa expires. In other words, he is free to either leave the airport or return home. But for the time being, he is staying put. He is now living his life inside a terminal and getting by with food donations from other travelers.
When asked why he was there, he didn’t know himself. He just wanted to smell the Mexican air from the airport. Because he is traveling alone, I personally think he is suffering from travel anxiety. He probably did want to visit Mexico. But now that he is in an unfamiliar country with an unfamiliar language, he may very well be paralyzed as what to do next. Going home is not an option, that would mean personal defeat. But leaving the airport on the other hand means taking a leap of faith. Something he may not be ready to do. So he stays in the one safe place he knows, the airport.
Another famous case is that of the Iranian refugee Mehran Karimi Nasseri. He was the inspiration for the film: The Terminal with Tom Hanks. He lived for eight years at Charles de Gaul airport in Paris. At first glance, it would seem that he found himself in a catch 22 predicament when his refugee status documents were stolen on his way from Paris to London. Without proper documents, London sent him back to Paris. His refugee papers had been issued by the Belgian government and the only way to get replacements was to get them in person. But for that, he had to travel to Belgium, which he couldn’t do without first getting his refugee papers back.
When you first hear this story, you have to wonder how it’s possible that someone is left to live for eight years in limbo in a first world nation. But when I dug a little deeper, it seems, this Kafka situation was entirely of his own making. He refused every solution offered to him that didn’t involve moving to the United Kingdom. First of all, he wasn’t living in the transit zone, like in the Tom Hanks movie, but in the departure hall. He was free to leave at any time. By 1996 when his whole ordeal started, France and Belgium had already signed the Schengen Agreement and opened each others borders. In other words, he could have easily taken a train from CDG in Paris, and been in Brussels two hours later without having to show any papers other then his train ticket. When Belgium did offer to send him new refugee status documents – rather then having to pick it up in person – it came with conditions. He had to live in Belgium for at least three years under the supervision of a social worker. He refused stating that he didn’t want to stay in Belgium, he wanted to live in the UK. At that point, the Belgium government must have given up on him and withdrew his refugee status.
In the mean time, he was probably living off the royalties of his book he had written about his life in the terminal, and later also from the Spielberg movie. But as the years passed by, he apparently grew more and more insane. Finally, he was hospitalized. It’s not clear if he is still alive, and if he is, where he is now.
On a personal note: I twice had to spend five hours in a Berlin airport, and was bored silly after the first twenty minutes. The ten hours in total that I spent there were an ordeal. With that in mind, if one were to become an Airport Dweller, which airports in the world would be the best suited to live in?