Syrian refugee Hassan Al Kontar has been stranded in a Malaysian airport for 56 days—and he's counting on the efforts of a group led by a Whistler woman to bring him to Canada.
"It's a difficult situation," said Al Kontar when reached on a crackly phone line, boarding announcements chiming in the background. "On one hand, I am strong, hopeful, and trying to focus on the big picture here—the light at the end of the tunnel.
"I don't care about the temporary issues or the small daily problems. But on the other hand, there are times when I'm really exhausted and tired and I can't take it anymore."
One of the strangers who has taken up Al Kontar's cause is Laurie Cooper, a former journalist and communications specialist who calls Whistler home. Cooper, who was inspired to get involved with the refugee crisis in 2015 when the image of a three-year-old Syrian boy who had drowned in the Mediterranean Sea made global headlines, was tipped off to Al Kontar's predicament earlier this month by another Syrian refugee, and sprang into action.
A founder of the Canada Caring Society, a non-profit dedicated to assisting volunteers find placement in refugee camps, Cooper quickly rallied her extensive international network. After word of Cooper's efforts got out, she started receiving offers of support from around the world. Good Samaritans have brought Al Kontar much-needed food, clothing, and a new cellphone—his only link to the outside world—on their way through the airport.
"Hassan was just telling me that eight people have come through bringing him nutrient-dense things like protein bars and dried fruits, just to supplement his diet a bit," said Cooper, who added that, "as a mom," she was worried that Al Kontar was getting too skinny on his airport diet. (Throughout the interview, Al Kontar referred to Cooper as "my Canadian mother.")
Al Kontar, 36, has been living in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport since March, when he was barred from boarding a Turkish Airlines flight. Originally from Dame, Syria, Al Kontar left the country in 2006 to work in the United Arab Emirates as an insurance marketing manager. After the Syrian Civil War broke out in 2011, Al Kontar lost his work permit. He eventually travelled to Malaysia on a three-month work permit, but overstayed his visa, meaning that he can't re-enter the country for five years. He was also denied entry to Cambodia, one of a handful of nations that doesn't require Syrians to have a visa to enter—for not having enough cash onhand. If he returns to war-torn Syria, he faces certain imprisonment—or worse—for failing to complete his mandatory military service.
Since last visiting Syria in 2008, Al Kontar has missed birthdays, weddings and, most tragically, funerals for his brother-in-law and father, who died from cancer in 2016.
"In both occasions, I was not able to attend the funeral or be there at the time of their sickness," Al Kontar said, adding that he's unsure when, if ever, he will see his Syrian family again. "It's a time of sadness, and you know it will never leave you. It changes you forever. You will remember their faces, and that you failed them each and every day, morning and before sleeping."
Stuck in limbo, Al Kontor has spent nearly two months straight in a stark arrival terminal—an ordeal he has documented on Twitter with a healthy dose of humour—subsisting on airline meals and the generosity of strangers. When he's not reaching out to media or public figures to raise awareness of his situation, he passes the time figuring out his next meal, shower, and where he will sleep. He listens to music, wanders around the terminal, and watches movies on his laptop (he really wants to see the new Avengers movie).
A crowdfunding campaign is also underway aimed at raising $13,000, the minimum amount required for private groups to sponsor a refugee. At press time, it had raised nearly $16,000.
"We wanted to raise that much so that if he can come to Canada, he's got the required funds. If he can't come to Canada, then he will use that money to settle wherever he can," Cooper explained, adding that there is already a confirmed job offer in Whistler for Al Kontar.
Although Malaysia has offered a temporary permit for Al Kontar to re-enter the country, Cooper and her sponsorship group, which includes the BC Muslim Association, are pushing for a more "durable" solution, as it can take up to 26 months for Malaysian authorities to process an asylum claim. Last week, Cooper wrote a letter to federal immigration minister Ahmed Hussen to expedite a temporary resident permit to allow Al Kontar to come to Canada while his sponsorship application is processed.
Disillusioned after spending weeks stranded, Al Kontar said that when he learned of the Whistler group's efforts, it "restored his faith in humanity."
"They showed how humans on Earth should behave," he added. "They are the real Avengers here."
Cooper urged Canadians to send messages in support of Al Kontar to the immigration ministry at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"If he makes it here (to Whistler), we'll have a big, local party," Cooper added.
To donate to the crowdfunding campaign, visit gofundme.com/help-hassan-fly-to-freedom.