World News

Syrian Refugee, Stranded in Malaysian Airport for Months, Lands in Vancouver

Posted November 27, 2018 7:50 a.m. EST

A Syrian refugee who had been stranded in a Malaysian airport for more than seven months landed in Vancouver on Monday, finally reaching the end of an ordeal that he had documented extensively on social media.

Hassan al-Kontar, who was wanted in Syria for refusing to serve in the military, had been stuck in Kuala Lumpur International Airport since March, when he was turned back as he tried to leave the country. He intended to travel more, eventually seeking asylum.

He had overstayed his Malaysian visa, so leaving the airport wasn’t an option, either. In October, seven months later, he was arrested by Malaysian police and sent to a detention center, setting off fears among human rights groups that he could be forced to return to Syria. He had not been heard from on social media since the arrest.

But he resurfaced in a Taiwan airport on Monday, announcing in a video that he would soon be reaching Vancouver — “my final destination.” In contrast to his videos shot over the previous months, all featuring the drab backgrounds of a nondescript airport terminal, he was surrounded in the new video by plants, artwork and comfortable-looking furniture. His mood was also brighter, sounding grateful and optimistic.

“Thank you all,” he said. “I love you all.”

Late on Monday, wearing a T-shirt, jeans and flip-flops, al-Kontar arrived in Vancouver and was greeted with a hug by Laurie Cooper, who was part of a group of Canadians that raised thousands of dollars to sponsor his asylum application and lobbied for his freedom. Al-Kontar told reporters in Vancouver International Airport that he was repeatedly threatened with deportation to Syria while in the detention center, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

“For the time being, I need a hot shower for the rest of the day,” he said. “I’ve done my time in airports, no more airports.”

Cooper, who lives in Whistler, British Columbia, told The Guardian that al-Kontar would be staying in her guest room. She became aware of his plight after seeing his videos on social media, and tens of thousands of people signed a petition asking government officials to allow him into Canada.

“I’m very grateful that Canadian officials, when Hassan was truly in peril, worked very, very hard to expedite the process,” Cooper said.

Al-Kontar had not been in Syria since 2008, and he did not return to the country to renew his passport when it expired out of fear he would be arrested. He later lived and worked in the United Arab Emirates before traveling to Malaysia.

In the airport, al-Kontar slept on a thin mat, relying on airport snacks and food donations from travelers and airport employees. He often expressed frustration and fear in his videos.

“I’m tired. Tired from this terminal, lonely as a sparrow in the rain,” he wrote in June, more than three months into his airport stay. “Tired of never having a soul to be with or a country I can call home, tired of people being ugly to each other. Tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world all the time. Can you understand this world?”

In other moments, he made the best of his situation. He posted videos of himself knitting, exercising and dancing. He tried to give himself a haircut, and expressed the thrill of an airport employee briefly opening a door, giving him a rare breath of fresh air. He offered feedback to George R.R. Martin on “Game of Thrones,” and volunteered to go to Mars for NASA.