White Coat, Black Art

How 7 months stuck at an airport provided a Syrian refugee with skills to survive a pandemic

A Syrian refugee who spent seven months stranded in an airport before finally making it to Canada shares how the lessons he learned during his darkest hours can help us cope during the ongoing pandemic.

‘When I touched the lowest moment in my life, I understood what hope is,’ says Hassan Al Kontar

Hassan Al Kontar says that during his time in the airport, he learned many of the survival skills that have helped him get through the current pandemic. (Submitted by Hassan Al Kontar)

This is a story from White Coat, Black Art's series called Prescription for Resilience: Coping with COVID on the many challenges people are facing during the pandemic, and what they're doing to find resilience.

The social-distancing restrictions enacted across Canada last spring to prevent the spread of COVID-19 hit Hassan Al Kontar a little too close to home.

"During the first week, my reaction was, 'Oh God, not again,'" said Al Kontar. "It brought back bad memories, but it was something I knew I'd be able to not let defeat me."

Al Kontar had already spent months of his life in social isolation. A refugee from the civil war in Syria, he made headlines around the world in 2018 when he was stranded in Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur International Airport for nearly seven months.

He didn't have the paperwork to remain in the country, did not want to return to Syria and was not welcome elsewhere.

While at the airport, he slept wherever he could, and ate what he could scrounge. He then spent several weeks in jail in Malaysia before a sponsor from Whistler, B.C., helped him find asylum in Canada in November 2018. He now works for the Red Cross in Vancouver.

Hassan Al Kontar arrives in Vancouver after flying from Kuala Lumpur in Vancouver on Monday, Nov. 26, 2018. (Ben Nelms/Canadian Press)

During his time as "the man in the airport," a period of his life that he's written about in a forthcoming book called Man @ The Airport, Al Kontar learned how technology can help bridge distances.

He raised international awareness about his plight through sometimes-playful posts to social media. Coffee in hand, he watched his brother's wedding via Skype — long before Zoom and FaceTime calls became as ubiquitous as they have during the pandemic.

"He did not want to get married until I solved my problem. I told him I didn't want to be an obstacle in his life, that [his wedding] would make me happy and give me a purpose to keep doing what I'm doing," he said.

Al Kontar says that during his time in the airport, he learned many of the survival skills that have helped him get through the current pandemic.

In addition to already having lived through a war, he was isolated from family, could not go outside, and lived without many conveniences we take for granted — all of which put the pandemic restrictions in perspective.

Hassan Al Kontar arrives in Canada

CBC News BC

2 years ago
1:00
Syrian refugee stuck in a Malaysian airport for seven months arrives in Vancouver. 1:00

He also realized the importance of patience. "It could take me hours to get a cup of coffee," he recalled. It taught him to take nothing for granted, and made him grateful for even the small things in life.  

For Al Kontar, being able to maintain a sense of hope has been the key to surviving and thriving. "When I touched the lowest moment in my life, I understood what hope is. Hope is the main motive behind everything in life," he said.

"When the Canadian people reached out to help me, it gave me strength and it restored my hope in humanity."

Life is nothing but one option: to keep moving, to wake up every morning and start chasing your dream again.- Hassan Al Kontar 

The key to resilience and survival, he says, lies in having empathy for others. During the first couple of weeks of the pandemic, Al Kontar opened his door to find a bag of snacks that an anonymous person had left for him. He took this as an inspiration to volunteer at a food bank.

"If we are going to manage to beat this virus it's through this kind of behaviour," he said.

"Life is nothing but one option: to keep moving, to wake up every morning and start chasing your dream again."


Written by Paul Gallant. Produced by Rachel Sanders.

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