Can you think of a worse place to be imprisoned (with the exception of an actual prison) than an airport terminal?
An Unlikely Prison
Airport terminals reflect busyness. They contain heavy doses of noise, uncleanliness, crowds, busyness, stress, in-hospitality, and fast food as the main option for sustenance. The noise from the jets is bad enough. The relentless and inescapable repeated playing of recorded messages about “no smoking in the terminal” and “not leaving bags unattended” can drive a person mad. There’s no privacy, except in a bathroom stall – until the cleaning lady comes.
Nor is there any place to lie down and rest. Most eligible benches contain stainless steel armrests that keep anyone but a midget from stretching out one’s tired body. And need I say anything about the people? Yes, an airport terminal would be a very bad place to be imprisoned. And if you’ve seen the motion picture, The Terminal, then you’ll know what I mean.
But it actually happened. The place was not the John F. Kennedy International Airport, but the Charles de Gaulle Airport in France. The prisoner was not Viktor Navorski from Krakozhia, but Merhan Karimi Nasseri from Iran.
Disowned by his homeland, Nasseri had wandered throughout Europe for years, seeking asylum and legal immigration to the UK, the Netherlands, Germany, France, Belgium, and Yugoslavia. In August 1988, while traveling to the UK from France, Nasseri was mugged and robbed of his identification papers. He somehow talked his way aboard the flight to England, but the UK immigration officers returned him to France, his point of origin. Without passport, visa, or any other identification, Nasseri lacked the authorization to go anywhere. He could not legally step outside the airport terminal.
How did he survive? He washed and shaved in airport restrooms. His food came from airport fast food stands that would give him handouts. He slept on a red bench in the underground level of the terminal. And he continued this routine for the next eighteen years! That’s right. Merhan Karimi Nasseri did not leave the airport terminal from August 1988 to August 2006, when he was moved to the Emmaus shelter for the homeless in Paris.
Why did he have to stay so long? Didn’t anyone try to help him? Yes, a famous human rights attorney, Christian Bourget, championed his cause. And after years of bureaucratic haggling and stalemate, in 1994 Belgium finally sent documents for Nasseri to sign, offering him asylum in that country. But he refused to sign. Four years later France offered him asylum as well. But he turned them down too.
Full Potential-Lack of Growth
Why did Nasseri turn down freedom from such an undesirable place? Many have concluded that he had become mentally ill and suffered from paranoia, depression, and anxiety. There was also the simple fact that, even in an airport terminal, Nasseri had a place to sleep, eat, and bathe, and he had absolutely no responsibilities. To go out into the world would mean he’d have to work, pay bills, file taxes, set up housekeeping, and be a responsible adult. If that was the cost of freedom, then Nasseri would rather stay in the airport, where he could be free from life’s challenges and responsibilities.
The tragedy of Merhan Karimi Nasseri is repeated every day by many people. Every day, all around us, we see people who refuse to risk failure or endanger their personal security to achieve freedom. We see people who flee responsibility and routinely run from challenges. Such people will never reach their God-given potential for goodness and greatness. They will never be the people God created them to be. “Be strong and courageous,” the Scripture tells us, “Do not fear or be dismayed, for the LORD your God is with you wherever you go” (Joshua 1:9).
Dear Father in heaven, help me to overcome my fears and my timidity. Empower me to face and overcome my challenges, for You are always with me to bless me and give me success. Amen.