Whistler, B.C., group fights to bring Syrian man stranded in Malaysian airport to Canada

A group of Canadians has sent an urgent request to Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen asking to help a Syrian man who has been stuck in Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur airport for 50 days.

Hassan Al Kontar has spent 50 days in Kuala Lumpur airport, surviving on airline meals

Hassan Al Kontar has been documenting his life in the airport via his Twitter account. (Hassan Al Kontar/Twitter)

A group of Canadians has sent an urgent request to Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen asking him to help a Syrian man who has been stuck in Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur airport for 50 days.

Hassan Al Kontar, 36, has been living in the transit section of the airport since he was turned away from a Turkish Airlines flight in March.

"I'm worried about being deported to Syria, or being stuck here forever," Al Kontar said, speaking on a fuzzy cellphone connection from the long, stark stretch of hallway that has become his home.

Touched by predicament

Laurie Cooper, who lives in Whistler, B.C., said she got in touch with Al Kontar when she heard of his predicament — humorously documented on his Twitter feed — and began sending him money to buy food.

Now, Cooper and a group of Whistler residents have raised the money required to sponsor him, and set him up with a job and accommodations in Whistler. She said she hopes Hussen will allow Al Kontar to travel to Canada while his application is processed.

"Originally we were just trying to find a safe place for him to go," Cooper said.

"But when we started researching his options, there really weren't any good [ones] and it occurred to us that probably the simplest thing to do was to sponsor him to come here," she said.

She said Al Kontar also has three cousins living in Canada.

Refugee claimants in Malaysia currently face a 26-month processing period.

'I'm stuck here'

Al Kontar, who is from Dama, Syria, said he worked as an insurance marketing manager in the United Arab Emirates between 2006 and 2017. When the Syrian conflict broke out in 2011, he lost his work permit and was sent to a deportation centre.

Al Kontar was then sent to Malaysia with a three-month work permit. When, after 90 days, he tried to fly to Ecuador, Turkish Airlines did not let him fly, causing him to overstay his Malaysian visa. He was also denied entry to Cambodia.

Because he overstayed his Malaysian visa, he cannot re-enter the country for five years.

He said Malaysian authorities have now given him two choices: be deported to Syria, or find a country that will issue him a visa.

"Unfortunately for Syrians, it's impossible to [get] a visa to anywhere," he said. "So I'm stuck here."

3 airplane meals a day

The transit area where Al Kontar is stuck consists of a long hallway, marked by rows of chairs and two bathrooms.

"Things you never thought would be a problem become a huge problem — how to take a shower and if I'm going to clean my clothes, where should I hang them to dry them?" said Al Kontar.

He said Malaysian Airways has been providing him with airline meals — chicken and rice, every day, three times a day. He said occasionally he is able to give cleaning staff money to bring him a cup of coffee or food from McDonald's.

Cooper, who is in regular contact with Al Kontar, said she's become concerned about his mental and physical health.

"As a mom, I notice that he's getting skinnier and skinnier, which worries me," she said.

"I would say that his nerves are getting frayed, I've noticed that in the last few days. It's a very bleak, lonely existence."

Al Kontar says he can't return to Syria, where he's wanted for military service, and fears he'll be arrested upon landing. He's also Druze, a minority religious group in Syria that has been targeted by extremist groups.

"I keep telling myself it's not my fault, that I'm paying the price for not wanting to kill other people and destroy my own home," he said.

At the airport terminal, losing one small comfort is what Al Kontar fears the most.

"I'm always worried about my mobile, because it's the only way to feel like I'm not in a prison. It's my only window to the outside world and it gives me a hint of freedom that I'm still a normal person."

With files from Laura Lynch

About the Author

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC Vancouver. She previously reported in Lebanon and Chile.