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Stranded at an airport for 7 months: MEMO in conversation with Hassan Al Kontar

Having fled Syria to avoid military service, Hassan found himself living the life of Tom Hank's character in The Terminal with no country willing to give him refuge

February 8, 2023 at 4:00 pm

After having lived in an airport for up to seven months, his days punctuated by the rhythm of ceaseless flights and footsteps, Syrian refugee Hassan Al-Kontar, has finally become a Canadian citizen.

Famously known as “The Airport man”, the 41-year-old made headlines in 2018, when he was stranded and stuck at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia for about seven months.

“I did not decide to stay at the airport; I was out of options after the system decided for me. Those who were fighting for power decided for me,” said Hassan.

“I was not in control of my own destiny. I was left with no choice but to stay at the airport, despite trying everything.”

Hassan was born in 1981 in the southern Syrian city of As-Suwayda, about 70 miles south of Damascus and near the Jordanian border, to a father who worked as a mechanical engineer and a mother who was a nurse.

He left Syria in 2006 to work as an insurance marketing agent in the United Arab Emirates, where he lived for 11 years. However, in 2011, the year the Syrian civil war broke out, Hassan’s work permit expired.

In fear of being forced to join the military for the Assad regime, he refused to renew his Syrian passport and stayed in Dubai until he was deported in October 2017.

“When the Syrian war started, I refused to join the army, so I didn’t renew my passport and they took my work permit. Instantly, I became an illegal immigrant,” said Hassan.  “I spent years being homeless and jobless, until they detained me and deported me to Malaysia, one of the few countries who accept Syrians on arrival visas for 3 months.”

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However, he had also overstayed the three-month visa and was unable to secure refugee status there, after which he attempted to travel to Ecuador, a signatory of the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention, but the Turkish airline he was booked to fly with refused to allow him to board.

He also flew to Cambodia in the hope of flying to South America from there but, once again, was refused entry before being sent back to Kuala Lumpur Airport, where he remained stranded for seven months.

“I knew that I was in deep, serious trouble and I knew at the time that the only reasonable solution was to send me back to Syria where I had no idea what was going to happen to me, especially because I am a wanted man there now, so I decided to fight back,” explained Hassan.

“I made it my purpose and goal to fight this, so it didn’t bother me where I was anymore. I reminded myself no one ever died from sleeping on chairs and floors. It was tough, it was long, but I had a goal, and it was to tell the story of my people.”

“I wanted the world to know how the system isn’t working for us, and how the international community failed us as Syrian refugees.”

Left with no choice but to languish in the international zone at the Kuala Lumpur Airport, Hassan turned to social media to document his ordeal in a series of videos and tweets that caught the attention of global media, governments and UNHCR.

In his first tweet, he imposed a question to the world, including himself, “What does it mean to be a Syrian?”

“Social media was a desperate solution after I found myself trapped in the airport. I tried to first reach out to NGOs, the United Nations, Amnesty, and even foreign embassies and public figures. But when I was left with silence, I accepted that I’m on my own, and that’s when I turned to social media,” said Hassan.

“During that period, I knew the world was judging me because of my nationality, not because I had any crimes or mistakes of my own. It was not Hassan the individual, it was Hassan the Syrian and that’s why I went to social media. It was my window to the world, and I used the skills, as limited as they were, to tell my story.”

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He had also written about his experience in a book, Man at the Airport: How Social Media Save My Life.

Hassan’s day-to-day life in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport was repetitive. It consisted of waking up and sleeping, with people rushing to reach their flights on time, sharing his story and the difficulties faced by Syrian refugees globally to raise awareness and fight to remain positive and hopeful.

“It’s funny reflecting back on it,” noted Hassan. “I was social distancing before the rest of the world, just watching everyone from a distance rush and get angry at delays. I was stared at like a zoo animal because I was on the news a lot, but it did not bother me any more after I discovered my purpose. I realised, in the end, it’s the journey that inspires everyone, not the destination.”

The worst day, he said, was when he woke up early as usual to take a stroll and at 10 am that morning, he froze at the news announcing Daesh had killed more than 200 people in his city in Syria with bombs and military raids. Women and children made up the majority of the victims.

“For the first time, I really experienced what it meant to be absolutely powerless and hopeless,” said Hassan. “We start wishing that all the marvel movies are true so we can use our cape to fly back in time and suit up like Ironman just to be there at that moment and save them.”

Moreover, in the 15 years since leaving Syria, he has missed the birth of his niece and the death of his father in 2016.

He also noted that the dire circumstances of Syrian refugees have essentially been forgotten by the rest of the world and mainstream media, despite the crisis not being even close to being solved since it is considered old news now. It is the vicious circle of news cycles, he remarked.

Hassan considers himself one of the luckiest after finding a home in Canada. He can, once again, begin his mornings with hot Turkish coffee and music by the Lebanese singer, Fairuz.

After arriving in Canada in November 2018, receiving his permanent residency, and starting work with the Canadian Red Cross, he believes that refugees belong to two different worlds and cultures.

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He concluded, “Home is where we have value, dignity, and rights as individuals. As refugees, we belong to two countries, one which we gain by birth and pray for love and peace, and one which we choose and are embraced by; I found that here in Canada.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.