He spent 7 months living in an airport, until Canada took him in. Now he's written a book about it
When the world's eyes were on Hassan Al Kontar, it was a group of Canadians who brought him to safety
This story was first published on May 24, 2021.
Coffee has been a lifeline for Hassan Al Kontar since the war broke out in Syria.
The former refugee spent seven months living in legal limbo at Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur International Airport in 2018, and two more in immigration detention, before finding asylum in Canada.
During that time, he was always on the hunt for his next cup of coffee. Sometimes a kind traveller would recognize him from the news and buy him a fresh cup. Once, someone hooked him up with a can of instant coffee, which he'd mix with water from the airport's fountains.
"It's not the cup itself; it's what it's representing. Those who dance on the edge of life and play with death on a daily basis, they love life the most and they find excitement and joy in the smallest thing in life, because it has been taken away from them. The smallest things become their hint of being normal people and free people," Al Kontar told As It Happens host Carol Off. "That's what coffee is for."
In his new memoir, Man at the Airport: How Social Media Saved My Life – One Syrian's Story, Al Kontar describes his nine-month journey — from the moment he was barred from boarding a flight out of Malaysia to the day he finally arrived in Vancouver, greeted by the Canadian volunteers who made it happen.
"That's why my story is not only the Syrian war story. It's also [about] a country called Canada and people called Canadians," he said. "Because of them, I am now permanently safe."
Al Kontar was working as a salesman in the United Arab Emirates when civil war broke out in Syria, and the U.A.E. refused to renew his visa. If he went home, he knew he'd be conscripted into mandatory military service under the Syrian regime.
"I refused to join the call because I did not want to be a part of a killing machine to kill my own people or to destroy my own house," he said.
He remained in the U.A.E. illegally until he was caught in 2017 and sent to Malaysia, one of the few countries that would accept Syrian travellers.
Once there, Al Kontar was granted a three-month tourist visa but was not eligible to claim asylum, so he worked under the table for a year, scrounging enough money to buy a ticket to Ecuador, where he has family. His mother and sister back home sold their gold necklaces to help cover the cost.
But when he arrived for his flight, the airline refused to let him board. He tried to fly instead to Cambodia but was denied entry by immigration authorities and sent back to Kuala Lumpur.
"That's when I knew that I'm out of options, out of solutions. I'm stateless now. I cannot go anywhere," he said.
'Make some noise'
Al Kontar's only tool was his phone, so he used it.
At first, he says, he tried all of the official channels — calling and emailing refugee agencies, NGOs, and foreign ministers and embassies in countries that might help him.
"I knew that none of this was going to work, but I did it anyway because I was desperate and hopeless," he said. "When they all came back with the negative, with 'Sorry, we cannot do anything,' then I decided I'm going to make it American-style. Now let us make some noise."
Al Kontar started live-tweeting his life at the airport. Then came the media firestorm. His story — reminiscent of the 2004 Tom Hanks movie The Terminal — resonated around the world.
"I remember myself saying that I don't want to screw it up. This is my chance. This is me speaking to the Canadians directly for the first time," Al Kontar said.
After it was over, he says he grinned. He knew he nailed it.
"From that time on, I found my purpose in life. I was telling my story and my people's story," he said. "It did not matter what was going to happen. I became proud of what I was doing."
But underneath that pride and storytelling was shame and silence as he remembered his mother and siblings back home.
"In my culture as an Arab, I'm the the eldest, I'm the older son, I'm the one who's supposed to take care of my family when they need me. Yet for years, they were the ones who took care of me," Al Kontar said.
"That kind of sadness, being ashamed of not being able to help them or to play my role as an oldest son, is what made me hide things from them. I did not tell them that I was stuck at the airport. They came to know from the news itself."
His mother was understandably worried, Al Kontar says, but she took comfort knowing he wasn't alone. A group of volunteers, headed by Laurie Cooper of Whistler, B.C., learned about Al Kontar's plight and organized on his behalf.
Cooper dubbed herself Al Kontar's "Canadian mom." She crowdsourced money for him, helped him navigate the asylum system, lobbied the government and co-ordinated with air travellers around the world to hook him up with food, money and supplies — including, of course, his much beloved coffee.
"They restored my faith in humanity," he said.
After seven months at the airport, Al Kontar was detained by Malaysian authorities. Once again, he found himself relying on the simple pleasures of a morning coffee and maybe a smoke to get him through the days.
"Sometimes it was all that I could think of when I was in detention jail in Malaysia for two months. Each and every morning, I told myself if there was a cup of coffee and a cigarette, things would be easier," he said.
We don't normally have dreams or fairy tales. Fairy tales are for kids. In my case, yes, my fairy tale became true.- Hassan Al Kontar, author of Man at the Airport
The other thing that got him through was knowing that his Canadian friends were still fighting for him. The Whistler residents teamed up with the B.C. Muslim Association and offered to sponsor him as a refugee in Canada.
Their work paid off when the Canadian government and a lawyer hired by Cooper quietly negotiated Al Kontar's release.
He is now a permanent resident in Abbotsford, B.C., where he advocates on behalf of other refugees.
Al Kontar remembers his first week in Canada, staying with Cooper and her family at their cabin in Whistler and watching the snow fall.
"I kept running outside with my cup of coffee, looking and looking at the snow falling and telling myself, 'Man, act cool. It's not the first time you've seen the snow. Don't be like a child who is wearing his Christmas clothes.' But I could not help it. I was a child, and I was so happy I could not sleep for days sitting next to the wood stove watching the snow," he said.
"I think for us as adults, we have goals we need to achieve. We don't normally have dreams or fairy tales. Fairy tales are for kids. In my case, yes, my fairy tale became true. And I was living my fairy tale in Whistler, having food on my table and having a family, Laurie's family, feeling safe."
Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong.