As It Happens

After months in an airport, then detention, Syrian refugee begins 'dream life' in Canada

He spent months stranded in the transit area of the Kuala Lampur International Airport, followed by more in a Malaysian detention cell. But after arriving in Vancouver, Hassan Al Kontar is adjusting to his new life in Canada.

'I can relax now,' says Hassan Al Kontar on arriving in Canada after his 9-month-long ordeal

Hassan Al Kontar with Laurie Cooper after arriving in Vancouver after flying from Kuala Lumpur in Vancouver on Monday. (Ben Nelms/The Canadian Press)

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For Hassan Al Kontar​, the reality of beginning life in Canada is even better than the dream.

The Syrian man's arrival at the Vancouver International Airport Monday night marked the end of a nine month-long ordeal — the first seven spent in limbo in the Kuala Lumpur airport, and the last two in a Malaysian detention centre.

He had worked for several years in the United Arab Emirates, but became stranded after his visa expired, and he feared returning to war-torn Syria. 

With help from the B.C. Muslim Association and a lawyer, a group of Canadian sponsors spearheaded by B.C.'s Laurie Cooper managed to secure Al Kontar's release. 

Now settled in Whistler, B.C., he spoke with As it Happens guest host Susan Bonner. Here is part of their conversation.

How are the first hours in this country?

For the first time, I realized that sometimes real life is more beautiful than the dream itself.

I'm very happy, actually. I miss the feeling of being safe and legal. It's all come back to me now.

Al Kontar speaks to media after arriving in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/Canadian Press)

When was the last time that you were outside, before you walked outside the Vancouver airport last night?

March 7. Almost nine months.

You start to understand life in a different point of view — to appreciate the little things that normal people have, to be free and just to have some fresh air.

I just wanted to stay in the street. Since yesterday, I have not slept. I just went outside like 10 times.

You were living been in detention for the last two months. Did you have any sense, after being taken from the airport, put into detention, of what was in store for you?

No one was telling me anything. But I got the feeling the people I rely on in Canada, they were doing everything they can.

So from that point, I was relaxing.

But thoughts will come to you because you have nothing to do but think. You think of the worst. But deep inside, I was always feeling I was going to make it because of the efforts of the volunteers.

It's the hardest punishment you would give someone, to just put them in a room.

I tried to just keep positive and not to think of it too much, because you come to know other people — poor people, powerless people from other countries. You come to know other stories, and know that you are not the only person suffering. 

Even when I was in the detention camp, I realized I am lucky to have a group of supporters and volunteers, because my problem would be solved. But their problems and their lives will be more difficult.

Al Kontar leaves Vancouver's international airport. (Ben Nelms/Canadian Press)

After everything you've been through, how did you maintain that optimism?

As a human, I was asking for my minimum human rights: to be legal and safe. So I believed in what I was doing, and for the first time, I became in love with what I was doing.

I was trying to explain the refugee crisis all over the world, not only my situation. So I came to understand that giving up was not an option.

Life is nothing but waking up every morning and chasing your dreams all over again. The harder the battle, the sweeter the victory. I think it was my nature to be positive.

When you were in the airport all those months, you were documenting your life there on social media. You did it with such humour — you showed the world your knitting projects, we saw you cutting your own hair in the bathroom, dancing to Drake in the airport corridor ... but there was also sadness and frustration in those posts. Why did you want to share all of that?

I wanted to be an explainer, not a complainer. People have their own lives and problems. I did not want to be an additional worry or sad story.

Yes, there were a lot of sad moments, but I was trying not to show it. It's always better to face problems with hope and a smile than to be sad and angry, because you will start making mistakes out of anger.

In April, you told As It Happens that Laurie Cooper had made you "believe in humanity" again. I'm wondering what it was like to finally meet her in person last night?

She became — with the other volunteers and the lawyer — the face of hope. They are the real heroes.

She had a lot of options to enjoy her life, but she chose to help others. And this is a very heroic thing.

You're living with her now.

It's a very welcoming and warm house. I could not sleep. Secretly, I blamed her for that because it is a very warm and comfortable and clean bed. 

I need to get used to that again, because the last nine months I've been sleeping on the floor. 

She's my Canadian mother. I truly feel that. I'm sitting here at her house, and I consider my own house now.

Al Kontar hugs a waiting Cooper in the Vancouver airport. (Ben Nelms/Canadian Press)

Written by Kevin Ball. Produced by Imogen Birchard. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.