For 56 days, Hassan Al Kontar has slept on a red blanket and neck pillow in a dim stairwell of the arrival lounge at the Kuala Lumpur airport.
He sleeps until an announcement wakes him. He dreams of someday soon coming to Canada.
“I’ve stopped counting the days,” the 36-year-old Syrian man said, “because it’s useless.”
Kontar is stranded in Malaysia — left by immigration officials from at least three countries and in legal limbo with no money, no visas, and few possessions.
I have Some good news and I need your help all of you to make it happen.
Please send an email to Mr. Ahmed Hussen – Canada's Minister of Immigration.
Tell him you support a Temporary Resident Permit for Hassan to come to Canada immediately pic.twitter.com/Wmpb2CSsHU
— Hassan Al Kontar (@Kontar81) April 27, 2018
Here’s how he got here. In January 2017, Kontar was ordered deported from the United Arab Emirates after his work permit expired. He was studying law in the University of Damascus, but he wasn’t able to finish the degree; in the UAE he worked, instead as an insurance marketing manager and, later, a solar energy expert, sending money to his two siblings and parents back home.
He feared returning to Syria — a country he left behind in 2006 — where he would be arrested for refusing mandatory military service.
He decided, instead, to go to Malaysia, one of the few countries that allows Syrians access without a visa. He was granted a three-month tourist visa. He spent that time raising money to buy a plane ticket to Ecuador, where he has family.
But the airline refused to board him.
He tried to fly to Cambodia, he said, but was once more rejected by immigration authorities and sent back to Malaysia.
“I am a Syrian. I am holding a piece of documentation and passport that says that,” Kontar said, “but now all governments around the world are judging me because of it. And it’s not my fault.”
“All Syrians are paying the cost of not taking the side of the war,” he said, “and not dirty our hands with blood.”
Today, Kontar is left with little but his memories. While trying to find a new legal status, he was forced to give away his only bag of items. It was his “memory box,” he said, carrying a T-shirt from his best friend that he’d kept for 11 years, some letters from relatives, an old wallet with his university ID and items belonging to his parents.
“I regret it each and every single day,” Kontar said.
He spends his days walking the arrivals’ corridors thinking about his family. His father died in 2011 — he wasn’t able to attend the funeral. His brother has gone into hiding and his sister is now a single mother to his nephew (her husband was killed). He didn’t tell them he was stranded for the first 35 days; they found out through the news.
These days, his saving grace is his “Canadian mother,” a British Columbia woman named Laurie Cooper, who has set up a GoFundMe page for Kontar with the goal of raising enough money to sponsor him to Canada. Through his Twitter video diaries, he urges viewers to write to Ahmed Hussan, Canada’s immigration minister, and ask to grant him a temporary resident permit as his refugee application is processed. Processing can take up to 26 months.
“He got caught by bureaucracy,” Cooper said. “He’s in a really bad situation. We’ve got the money. He has a job. He has family here. We have the willingness. Just let him come.”
Hussan’s office has received these letters but cannot comment on the case, immigration ministry spokesperson Hursh Jaswal told the Star, adding that refugee processing is complex because it involves at-risk people in challenging conditions.
“Some of these factors include establishing identity, addressing security concerns as well as logistical challenges that are outside of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada’s control,” Jaswal wrote.
Cooper, with the help of six volunteers in Canada, United States and Britain, submitted all the documentation to bring Kontar to Whistler, B.C. on April 25. Kontar has already been offered a job and a home by a luxury hotel. One volunteer, Stephen Watt, a marketing manager at University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, will be meeting Kontar on Wednesday.
Watt has become “the person between (Kontar) and the rest of the world,” providing information, emotional support, companionship and some sanity, speaking several times a day. “When we do finally meet tomorrow, it will be as friends,” Watt wrote to the Star.
Kontar is excited by the prospect of coming to Canada. Two of his close cousins were refugees who now live in Toronto.
“Canada is a great country,” Kontar said. “No one hates Canada in this day… No one speaks bad about Canada.”
“They will take care of me. They got me job there so I can support myself and be legal,” he added. “I know their history, their actors, their singers. I have been a fan of Celine Dion since I was a teenager.”
“Canada is a dream for everyone.”
While he waits, the airline that turned him away has given him a chair and provides the same meal three times a day: some rice and chicken. On a day-to-day basis he is in contact with half a dozen volunteers around the world, working on various plans to get him to three to four countries. He takes selfies with travellers and gives thanks to those who bring him things (most recently a mattress). He tells his story constantly.
“It’s exhausting, but people are showing support,” he said. “They treat me as a famous person when I’m just a man stuck at an airport, sitting on a chair.”