British Columbia

Syrian refugee says Canada's support for the displaced is more important than ever

On World Refugee Day, Hassan Al Kontar says arriving in Canada is "living the dream" after being stranded for seven months at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

'To powerless ... people all around the world, Canada is much more than a country'

Hassan Al Kontar at the CBC Vancouver studio on Thursday, World Refugee Day. (Laura Sciarpelletti/CBC)

A Syrian man who arrived in Canada last year after seven months in limbo in Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur Airport now speaks at events across Canada to raise awareness about refugees. 

In a CBC interview on World Refugee Day, Hassan Al Kontar said Thursday he was terrified of being deported back to war-torn Syria at the time and still has troubled sleep.

"I will be always the man from the airport no matter what. If I forget about him, he is not going to forget about me, unfortunately,"  Al Kontar told Laura Lynch, guest host of The Early Edition.

But these days Al Kontar says he's "living the dream." He's found a home in Vancouver and works at a restaurant. After his rocky immigration to Canada, he's now a permanent resident. 

"People are good in general. They want to help. They don't know how and they don't know much about refugees. Being a refugee is not a matter of choice ... We have been forced by similar circumstances to be refugees and all we need to do is to show [Canadians] that we are like normal humans."

Hassan Al Kontar hugs Laurie Cooper upon arrival at the Vancouver International Airport from Kuala Lumpur. Cooper is part of a group from Whistler, B.C., that raised money to sponsor him. (Ben Nelms/Canadian Press)

Canada and refugees

New polling numbers suggest a majority of Canadians believe the federal government should limit the number of immigrants it accepts.

Sixty-three per cent of respondents to a recent Leger online poll conducted from June 7 to 10 for The Canadian Press said the government should cap immigration levels because the country might be reaching a limit in its ability to integrate them.

Just 37 per cent said the priority should be on growing immigration to meet the demands of Canada's expanding economy. According to Statistics Canada, international migration accounted for 80 per cent of Canada's population growth in 2017 and 2018. 

Al Kontar says Canada is a very special symbol to refugees. 

"To powerless, homeless people all around the world, Canada is much more than a country. It may be your home. It may be your country, but for us ... the powerless people ... It's an idea. It's a feeling of being permanently safe."

Hassan Al Kontar and sponsor Laurie Cooper at YVR in November 2018. (Ben Nelms/Canadian Press)

Al Kontar says accepting refugees is not a bad choice because diversity is a powerful thing. 

"It's not only about the economic, it's not only about tax policies or minimum wages. It's also about raising your kids in a better place in a safer world full of love," he said. "We should do nothing as refugees but bring love and peace to this country and we are grateful and thankful and feel that it's a privilege to be here."

Listen to the full interview here:

With files from The Early Edition and Theresa Wright. 

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