As It Happens

Syrian stranded at Malaysia airport says Canadians renewed his hope in humanity

Hassan al Kontar has been living in an airport in Malaysia for more than a month with little money, few possessions and nowhere to go.

B.C. woman co-ordinates efforts to support Hassan al Kontar, who has been living at airport for a month

Stranded at KLIA2, Kuala Lumpur's budget terminal, Hassan Al Kontar has been posting videos blogs of his daily life on Twitter and Facebook. (Hassan al Kontar/Twitter)

Read Story Transcript

Hassan Al Kontar has been living in an airport in Malaysia for more than a month with no money, few possessions and nowhere to go.

The Syrian man said he has been stranded in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport's transit zone for 38 days, depending on the kindness of airport and airline staff for food and supplies.

He has nowhere to shower or wash his clothes. He sleeps a few hours at a time, curled up in airport chairs or spread out on the floor. 

"It's exhausting. I'm tired from this. I cannot take it anymore," Al Kontar, 36, told As It Happens host Carol Off. 

"I'm trying to act strong, but I'm even tired of acting strong. I just want to relax."

'Not my fight' 

But finding a place to relax has been a challenge.

A former insurance salesman, Al Kontar said he was living in the United Arab Emirates and sending money home to his family when war broke out in Syria and the UAE refused to renew his visa.

If he went home, he would have been forced into mandatory military service with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces.

"I am a brave man, but it's not my fight. I cannot just be a part of a killing machine to destroy my own home," he said.

"Syria is my home. I cannot just bomb my home or airstrike my home. It's not my duty in this life. I was born in this life to do something good. It's not my work to kill my people or my brothers."

Long and winding road

At first, he said he stayed in the UAE illegally, working under the table and living in his car.

He said he was caught in 2017 and deported to Malaysia, a country that accepts Syrians without visas. There, he said he was granted a three-month tourist visa.

It took him more than a year to raise enough to buy a ticket to Ecuador, where he has family, but the airline refused to board him. 

He tried instead to fly to Cambodia, he said, but was again rejected by immigration authorities and sent back to Kuala Lumpur.

Cambodian's immigration ministry told the Phnom Penh Post that Syrians can get visas on arrival, but are turned away if they fail to meet government "requirements.

"I keep trying to prove myself, yet I am not able to find myself a safe place, a clean place, where I can be legal, as a refugee," he said.

"It's not my fault that I was born with a little piece of paper ... saying that I am Syrian."

Al Kontar says he didn't return home when his passport expired because he did not want to fight for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's army in a war he opposes. (SANA via Reuters)

Because he spent all his money on plane tickets, he said can't fly anywhere else. And he can't leave the airport, because he's no longer permitted in Malaysia for overstaying his visa. 

As It Happens can't independently verify Al Kontar's account.

Malaysia's immigration department and the airport did not respond to requests for comment from Reuters.

The UN refugee agency confirmed meeting Al Kontar, but said it could not comment on individual cases.

"UNHCR is aware of this case and have reached out to the individual and the authorities," Yante Ismail, the agency's spokeswoman in Kuala Lumpur, said in a statement.

The kindness of strangers

One thing that gives Al Kontar hope, he said, are the Canadian volunteers who have been co-ordinating to get him supplies and raising money to buy him a ticket to someplace safe.

Laurie Cooper of Whistler, B.C., has set up a GoFundMe page for Al Kontar with the goal of buying him a ticket to Ecuador via an alternate route.

She's also been co-ordinating with travellers from around the world to bring Al Kontar cash and supplies.

A screengrab from April 13, 2018, shows a GoFundMe page set up to help Al Kontar get a plane ticket to a country where he can safely apply for refugee status. (Help Hassan Fly to Freedom/GoFundMe)

"It's very hard to get access to him because he's in the arrivals section," Cooper told As It Happens.

"The only people that can, you know, meet him are arriving. Otherwise we can't get him any money or anything."

Despite the logistical difficulties, Al Kontar said these efforts have been "a source of life" for him.

"This group of volunteers, they brighten my soul, my mind, my heart for the rest of my life," he said.

"I'm so grateful that I come to know them. I love them like brother and sister now. ... This is humanity at the highest level, in my opinion."

Dreaming of Canada

While he is focused on getting to Ecuador, Al Kontar has also considered the possibility of applying for refugee status in Canada, where he also has family members.

"It's a dream for anyone, to be frank with you," he said

"As a Syrian, it's the heaven itself. If you are in Canada, you are almost in the heaven."

But the meantime, he's just trying to get through the day to day.

"It huge issue just to try to have a normal life, like having a shower or going to sleep," he said.

"My legs, my hands, I cannot feel them. But it's OK. I keep telling myself that I never heard about someone who died because he was sleeping on a chair, so I will be OK."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Hassan Al Kontar produced by Imogen Birchard.