Within Diosdado Macapagal International Airport six miles northwest of Angeles City in the Philippines, Ghanaian footballer Ayi Nii Aryee spends his days in legal limbo, lacking proper paperwork to travel to his destination or back to his point of origin. He has been living at the airport, the one-time U.S. air base formerly known as Clark Field, since July, sleeping first on terminal chairs and then on a cot provided by the airport’s fire brigade.
Aryee, 18, like many African players seeking opportunity abroad, flew across continents for a speculative three-week trial with Sporting Afrique Football Club in Singapore’s S-League. On arrival, however, he was told that his allowance would be 10 percent of the original offer, validated by club members who had spoken with the BBC in June (“Hopes Dashed in Singapore,” 14 Jun 06). He appealed for a student pass, writing to immigration officials, “I know that it is difficult to earn a living as a footballer because there are a lot of players with capable talents. That is why I realized that getting a better education is important.” His request was rejected, and he returned to the Philippines where he had flown originally to visit cousins. Visas canceled by both states, lacking prospects in Ghana and passport seized, Aryee finds himself in his present dilemma.
The Ghanaian received a surge of publicity in late August when hospitalized after collapsing from malnutrition in the airport comfort room. The airport executive intervened, paid Aryee’s hospital bill and offered him makeshift lodging with the firefighters and a regimen of meals and training. But the only available media updates since come from Italy (Brian Stefen Paul, “The (Real) Terminal,” sportnews.it, Nov 16) and Nigeria (Michael Mukwuzi, “Stranded in a Foreign Land,” The News [Lagos], Nov 20).
The Ghanaian Chronicle reprises the story on Dec 6 but without reporting any change in Aryee’s status. Sadly, little serious attention seems to have been given Aryee’s dilemma. Many media reports have focused on superficial similarities between the Ghanaian’s story and that portrayed by Tom Hanks in the 2004 film The Terminal. While Hanks developed a love interest in Catherine Zeta-Jones, this has yet to happen to Aryee.
Hanks’s role was based on the real-life statelessness of Merham Karimi Nasseri, a resident for 18 years in Terminal One of Charles de Gaulle Airport outside Paris. To our knowledge, Nasseri still lives there, a Kurdish exile from Iran whose identity papers and immigration paperwork were stolen in the airport in 1988 (see Julien Bordier, “Le naufragé du terminal 1,” L’Express, 26 Jul 04). Nasseri’s position has remained intractable, despite $300,000 in rights earned from the production of Hanks’s film. (Two other films have focused on aspects of Nasseri’s situation, Tombés du ciel in 1993 and the faux documentary Here to Where in 2001.)
The existential uncertainty of Nasseri and Aryee has proven fodder for academics, as in an excerpt from a 2000 M.A. thesis that meditates on Nasseri’s lack of residence (“A Refugee of Time,” cityscripts.com). “An airport is a space created by transfers and movements,” this work says, part of the airport’s paradoxical quality as a “non-space.” The airport lacks a structure for creating meaningful social relations and certainly no place in which or companions with whom Aryee can play football.
“I play alone because nobody plays football here,” Aryee is quoted as saying in The News. In earlier days of his unplanned exile, Aryee said, “When I laid back on the terminal seats and tried to sleep, all I could think of was playing in a crowded stadium, the fans cheering my name. That brought me peace and hope.”
But that was in July.