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Syrian refugee's months-long ordeal comes to a happy ending

Hassan Al Kontar, who was stranded in Malaysian airport for months, arrives in Whistler this week thanks to help from local Laurie Cooper

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Whistlerite Laurie Cooper made a promise to Hassan Al Kontar when she began the push to bring the Syrian refugee to Canada after he was left stranded in a Malaysian airport.

“I am an eternal optimist and I’m pretty determined, so I always figured we would find a way to get him to safety. That was my commitment to him. I never said to him, ‘I will definitely get to you Canada.’ What I did say was that ‘I will not stop until I help you find a place to live,’” Cooper recalled.

Thanks to her efforts and a group of fellow Whistlerites, along with the help of the BC Muslim Association and one of Canada’s preeminent refugee lawyers, Al Kontar arrived in Vancouver yesterday after a lengthy ordeal that saw him spend seven months in the terminal of a Kuala Lumpur airport, followed by nearly two isolating months in a Malaysian detention centre.

“I know I look like someone who ran from the Stone or Middle Ages. I’m sorry for that,” a shaggy-haired Al Kontar said in a video he posted to his Twitter account on Monday, Nov. 26. “I’m also sorry for not being in touch for the last almost two months. For now it’s not important where I have been or what was going on with me. The past is no longer with us. What is important is today and tomorrow, the present and the future.”

For the first time in years, Al Kontar's future looks bright. The 36-year-old’s odyssey began in 2011, when the insurance marketing manager lost his work permit from the United Arab Emirates after civil war broke out in his native Syria. It left him scrambling to find a country that would issue him a visa so he would not have to return to his war-torn homeland. For years, he slept in his car or hid out in parks.

In March, he was turned away from a Turkish Airlines flight, causing his three-month Malaysian work permit to expire and leaving him stranded in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport.

The affable Al Kontar documented his plight with a healthy dose of humour and pathos on his Twitter account, amassing thousands of followers along the way. But his social media went silent on Oct. 1, the day he was arrested by Malaysian authorities and thrown in a detention centre, where Al Kontar said he was threatened with deportation daily.

Wanted for mandatory military duty, Al Kontar, who is a member of the Druze religious minority that has been persecuted by extremists and who has also been critical of President Bashar Al Assad’s autocratic regime, feared for his fate if he were sent back to Syria.

When Cooper, the founder of Canada Caring, a non-profit dedicated to placing volunteers in refugee camps, learned of Al Kontar’s ordeal, she was driven to action, launching a letter-writing and fundraising campaign with a group of fellow Whistlerites. Eventually, the BC Muslim Association reached out, offering a sponsorship spot to bring Al Kontar to Canada. Andrew Brouwer, Legal Aid Ontario’s senior counsel in refugee law, offered his services pro bono and wrote letters to human-rights organizations around the globe.

Cooper was unsure of exactly how Canadian officials managed to secure Al Kontar’s release.

“The Canadian government was talking to the Malaysian government and reached a point where they decided to send someone from the Canadian High Commission Office in Singapore and when they arrived in Malaysia, they were actually not permitted to see Hassan,” Cooper relayed. “I give them a lot of credit; they obviously persisted and ended up being able to see him the following week.”

Canadian officials also had to administer the immigration application process, which includes an interview, medical and biometric exam, while Al Kontar was still in detention.

A retired journalist and communications specialist, Cooper could never have imagined she would find herself in the middle of an international, geopolitical crisis.

“I feel like I’m in an episode of Homeland,” she said. “It’s stunning to me. It’s nothing I ever envisioned being involved in.”

Al Kontar arrives in Canada as a permanent resident, and has been offered a job at a Whistler hotel. For now, he will stay with Cooper at her home in Emerald, where he will take some much-needed R&R.

“I honestly don’t know when the last time he slept in a bed was,” Cooper added. “I think (Whistler) will be a nice place for Hassan to decompress, relax and be close to nature and heal a little bit.”

For more on this story, pick up Thursday’s print edition of Pique.

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