British Columbia

Surviving the terminal: one former airport dweller's advice to a fellow Syrian stuck in transit

Hassan Al Kontar is trapped in an airport — but he's not the first refugee to become stranded.

Hassan Al Kontar is trapped in an airport — but he's not the first refugee to become stranded

Majd Agha, left, became stranded in a Thai airport while trying to get to Europe. Canada eventually accepted his asylum claim. Hassan Al-Kontar is currently stuck in an airport in Malaysia, and is hoping to come to B.C. (Majd Agha/Hassan Al Kontar)

Hassan Al-Kontar is a 36-year-old Syrian man who has been living in the transit zone of a Malaysian airport for over 75 days.

It's a situation Majd Agha, who now lives in New Westminster, B.C., knows all too well.

In 2014, Agha was one of six Syrian refugees who became stranded in Phuket airport in Thailand for three months as they tried to reach Europe.

"Oh man, it just reminded me of myself and the other guys who were with me," he said, upon reading media accounts of Al Kontar's ordeal.

Al Kontar was turned away from a flight headed to Ecuador, causing him to overstay his Malaysian visa, and making him unable to re-enter that country. With only a Syrian passport and no international visa, he's effectively stuck.

He now survives off of airline meals and the goodwill of strangers around the world, and documents his experiences — sometimes humorously, sometimes despairingly — through a Twitter account that has garnered thousands of followers.

A group of Canadians in Whistler, B.C. has sent an urgent request to Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen in the hopes of having Al Kontar brought to Canada.

In 2013, Agha, who was 21 and hailed from Damascus, was living as a refugee in Lebanon when he and his friends decided they would try to make their way to Europe.

Having heard the horror stories of boats capsizing in the Mediterranean, they decided to try a route they hoped would be safer. Armed with fake passports, their plan was to fly to Stockholm by way of Thailand and China. But when Chinese authorities found the documents were faked, they were sent back to Thailand.

For three months, the young men lived in the hospitality room at Phuket airport, where they had beds, couches, and a private bathroom.

Looking back, Agha said their situation was far more favourable than Al Kontar's, who now lives in a bleak stretch of hallway, with access to only one public washroom. 

'No sun, no sky'

Agha said it takes enormous mental strength to survive in a confined space like an airport — a scenario documented in the 2004 feature fiction film The Terminal, which depicts a man living in an airport after war breaks out in his home country.

"It was very hard to be there for three months, even though we had some mobility at the airport," he said. "We hadn't been outside in three months. No sun, no sky, no nothing."

"There were six of us so we kind of helped each other survive. I think if it was only one guy there I would have collapsed, so I can't imagine what he's going through right now, being all alone there."

'Technically in prison'

Unlike Al Kontar, Agha and his companions received next to no media attention while they were trapped. But from the hospitality room, Agha contacted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which helped him connect with the Canadian embassy. Eventually, their asylum claims were accepted, making them among the first Syrians to arrive in Canada.

Four years later, Agha finally became a Canadian citizen. 

Now a student of kinesiology at Langara College, he also volunteers with the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. He said he hasn't seen his parents and sister, who still live in Damascus, since he left years ago.

He said he hopes Al Kontar's case is resolved quickly.

"In his case, he should be a priority for the human rights organization to settle him somewhere, because he's technically trapped, he's technically in prison," he said.

"It's not an obligation of Canada to bring people all the time who get stuck, but it would be really nice if they would help because they have the capacity to do so."

About the Author

Michelle Ghoussoub

@MichelleGhsoub

Michelle Ghoussoub is a journalist with CBC News in Vancouver. She has previously reported in Lebanon and Chile. Reach her at michelle.ghoussoub@cbc.ca or on Twitter @MichelleGhsoub.