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Syrian refugee forced to live in airport for seven months arrives in Canada after being granted visa

Hassan al-Kontar shared his life in limbo with thousands of followers online after becoming stranded at Kuala Lumpur airport in March

Richard Hall
Beirut
Tuesday 27 November 2018 16:01 GMT
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Syrian man gives latest video update after being approved for resettlement in Canada

A Syrian refugee who was forced to live in Kuala Lumpur airport for the past seven months has arrived in Canada after being granted asylum.

Hassan al-Kontar had been stranded in the transit area of Malaysia’s largest airport since March, after being denied permission to leave for another country.

His unusual living arrangement was just the latest episode in an ordeal that began seven years ago, when war broke out in his home country and he was made stateless after refusing to return home to perform military service.

Mr Kontar’s plight gained global attention when he began posting daily, irreverent updates of his life in limbo. His story drew comparisons to The Terminal, a 2004 film starring Tom Hanks about a man who becomes stuck in JFK airport when he is denied entry into the United States.

For the last two months, he was placed in a detention centre at the airport for entering a “forbidden area”, according to authorities.

The 37-year-old arrived in Vancouver on Monday night following a fundraising campaign by Canadian volunteers, who helped him through his asylum application.

In an update posted from Taiwan international airport while he was en route to Canada, Mr Kontar said it had been a “long, hard journey”.

“The past is no longer with us,” he added, in an emotional address to camera. “What is important is today, and tomorrow, the present and the future.”

“I could not do it without the support and prayers from all of you. Let’s keep a prayer for those who still need it the most, in refugee camps and detention camps all over the world. I hope they will be safe and legal as soon as possible,” he said.

Mr Kontar’s story has shone a spotlight on the narrow options and Kafka-esque procedures faced by many Syrians since the country’s civil war began in 2011. There are only a handful of countries that Syrian nationals can travel to without a visa, and he was unable to find sanctuary in any of them over the past seven years.

Originally from Sweida, in the south of Syria, Mr Kontar left his country for the United Arab Emirates five years before the war began to take a job as an insurance marketer. He was working there when war broke out back home.

His passport expired in January 2012 and he could not receive a new one unless he went home and carried out compulsory military service, at a time when the country was being ravaged by conflict. The company he worked for could not renew his residency permit in the UAE, so he lost his job and was eventually deported in 2017.

Malaysia is one of the few countries to which Syrians can enter visa free, so Mr Kontar decided to head there. When he realised he would not be able to work, he tried to travel to Turkey and then Cambodia – but was denied by both. By that point his Malaysian visa had expired, meaning he was trapped in the transit zone.

The airport became his home. With little else to do, he took to social media to share moments from his day and raise awareness of the difficulties faced by Syrian refugees.

In one tweet, he shared video of himself using the escalator as a treadmill. In another, he is seen wrapped in a blanket, the caption reads: “Anyone saw the AC remote !!?? I don’t know where I put it. Good thing that I have such a heavy blanket. Just another night and it shall pass.”

Mr Kontar’s asylum application was sponsored by the British Columbia Muslim Association and Canada Caring Society.

The Canada Caring Society launched an online petition which collected more than 62,000 signatures. Laurie Cooper, a volunteer with the organisation, earlier told the BBC that Mr Kontar’s impending arrival was “still a bit unbelievable”.

“Until I give him a big hug at the airport, it’s not really real. It’s been a long, long journey with lots of ups and downs,” she said.

When he arrived in Vancouver on Tuesday evening, Ms Cooper was there to greet him.

“There are so many things I want to say to you,” he told her, as the two embraced.

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