British Columbia·Opinion

This pandemic has made refugees of us all

Today the whole world lives in a condition of uncertainty and anxiety — a condition that became quite familiar to me during my time stuck in an airport in Malaysia as a Syrian refugee, writes Hassan Al-Kontar.

Like wars, the COVID-19 pandemic is a test of our humanity

Today the whole world lives in a condition of uncertainty and anxiety — a condition that became quite familiar to me during my time stuck in an airport in Malaysia, writes Hassan Al-Kontar. (Submitted by Hassan Al-Kontar)

This column is an opinion by Hassan Al-Kontar, a former Syrian refugee who now lives in Whistler, B.C. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Since the spread of coronavirus in Canada, I have been asked for my thoughts on the pandemic.

My response: "Do you want to hear my answer as a Syrian? Or as a permanent resident of Canada?" 

I will immediately spot the confusion: "What's the difference? Is there a difference?"

There is a big difference.  

Today the whole world lives in a condition of uncertainty and anxiety — a condition that became quite familiar to me during my time stuck in an airport in Malaysia. The question we all live with now, which I lived with every day at the airport in Kuala Lumpur, is this: What is the future?

Each day, refugees face far more worrying concerns than we do in Canada: food shortages and lack of medical care, not to mention the missiles and bombs raining down from fighter planes. 

But now we have all entered a strange world in which death is a moment-by-moment reality. We watch the news and the spreadsheets of numbers: numbers infected, numbers dead. We add up the numbers without knowing their names or stories, who they are. Just numbers!

We wake up and go to sleep on news of the tragedy.

We feel fear and insecurity.

We feel the dislocation of the isolated, separated from our families with no possibility of a reunion. 

The airports are forbidden to us, and even the airlines prevent us from boarding. 

The borders are closed in our faces, with all passports being equal — equally useless.

We feel trapped and unwelcome.

We ask the question that no one has the answer to: When will all this end? And when will life be normal again? 

These used to be the questions only refugees had to ask. Today they are questions we are all asking. We have all been made refugees by this virus, trapped and terrified. We are all in this together, facing the same pandemic.

But here's the difference. 

During my mother's endless calls from Syria to check on me, I find myself reassuring her.

I say: "Sweetheart, I live in Canada now. I no longer live in the shadow of a dictatorship, where no officials will back you up, where government's promises aren't even worth the ink they used to write them and no one will tell you the truth.

"We have values here, rights and voices, employee insurance, emergency plans, food banks, NGOs, civil and humanitarian organizations. I am protected but you are not."

Hassan Al-Kontar came to Canada as a refugee from Syria in August 2019. He is now a permanent resident living in Whistler, B.C. (Submitted by Hassan Al-Kontar)

I've been watching this crisis unfold with dread and recognition. When I saw the footage of people fighting over toilet paper, I thought about refugees in the camps across the Middle East and the rest of the world — what they are going through, and what they are doing to survive.

If you feel the urge to fight over some toilet paper, please take a moment to ask yourself this question to help put things in perspective: "What if I was living in a refugee camp?" 

Canadians should know that it could always be worse.

Like wars, a global pandemic tests our humanity. 

So, instead of answering unanswerable questions like "when will this end?" how about we start asking questions like "how can we help?"

Let us support those on the front lines, trust them, stay at home and maintain our physical distance.

Let us smile and be positive. 

If you have a COVID-19-related story we should pursue that affects British Columbians, please email us at  


Hassan Al-Kontar is a former Syrian refugee, who spent seven months stuck in an arrival terminal at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. As a permanent resident of Canada, he is committed to advocating for refugees around the world.


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