Hassan Al Kontar is stranded at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Picture: @Kontar81/Twitter
Hassan Al Kontar is stranded at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. Picture: @Kontar81/Twitter

Man stuck in airport for 62 days

AS MILLIONS of passengers stream through Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur International Airport, heading off on holidays or returning home to loving families, all Hassan Al Kontar can do is watch. And wait.

For the past 62 days, that's all Mr Kontar has been able to do. The airport has become his home.

The stranded 36-year-old, who works in insurance marketing, spends most of his time in terminal two. He sleeps under staircases and showers in the public bathrooms - after midnight, when fewer people are around.

He relies on supplies from airport staff, and his only meals are packets of rice and chicken from a generous airline.

His savings are quickly running out, but occasionally he treats himself to McDonald's at the airport food court.

Day in and day out, he watches, and waits. He often goes on Twitter to give updates on his hopeless story to whoever will pay attention.

Mr Kontar, a Syrian man who has spent the past decade in the United Arab Emirates, is in bureaucratic limbo. He lost his passport when he refused to fight in Syria's brutal civil war, so Malaysia won't let him leave the airport, and airlines won't fly him out.

"Unfortunately for Syrians, it's impossible to [get] a visa to anywhere," he told Canada's CBC News from the airport. "So I'm stuck here."

THE JOURNEY TO TERMINAL 2

Mr Kontar had already left Syria by the time civil war broke out in 2011. By then, the young man from Dama, south of Damascus, was working as an insurance marketing manager in the United Arab Emirates.

Eventually, he was summoned for military service in Syria, which he had no interest in, so he refused. ("I don't consider it right to participate in war," he later told the BBC.)

But his refusal prompted the Syrian embassy in the UAE to decline a renewal of his passport in 2012.

 

A now very familiar view at the airport. Picture: @Kontar81
A now very familiar view at the airport. Picture: @Kontar81

Without a passport, Mr Kontar couldn't renew his work permit either, so he also lost that, along with his job. He went into hiding in the UAE for six years, until he was detained by authorities and sent to Malaysia with a three-month work permit.

After three months, Mr Kontar tried to fly to Ecuador, which allows Syrian nationals to enter visa-free.

"I saved up enough money to buy a plane ticket on Turkish Airways. But for some reason, they did not allow me on the flight and I found myself back at square one," he told the BBC.

He said he was fined for "overstaying" in Malaysia and was "black-listed" - meaning he couldn't legally enter the country.

Another day at the airport. Picture: @Kontar81
Another day at the airport. Picture: @Kontar81

Mr Kontar then tried to go to Cambodia, which also let Syrians obtain a visa on arrival, but was refused entry. He was flown back to Kuala Lumpur on March 7, and has been stuck at the airport ever since.

'I AM JUST COUNTING DAYS HERE, WITH NO HOPE'

During his two months at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, Mr Kontar has documented his plight on Twitter, with his feed becoming a kind of diary of his bizarre situation.

He has shared words of hope, humour, peace, fear, frustration and hopelessness, along with photos from his terminal two home, and video diaries, many in English.

He said he didn't like people dwelling on his unusual living conditions but it's hard to not be captivated by his insights into daily life at the airport. Some days have been harder than others.

"I am just counting days here, with no hope," he said in a video posted on March 23.

"I don't know why I keep doing these videos; maybe somewhere deep inside my feelings or my heart I need someone who cares, someone who may [be] able to help, [but] somewhere I know it's hopeless. It's a false hope.

"I don't know what to do. It seems like it will be my home for a while.

"It's a difficult situation. There's no place to shower, there's no place to sleep. I'm even sick but there is no medicine."

During the video, he was interrupted by chimes signalling an announcement over the airport PA system.

"This sound, I swear - I hate this sound," he said with the frustration of a person who has been stuck in an airport for way, way too long. "It's everywhere, day and night."

 

Playing the waiting game. Picture: @Kontar81
Playing the waiting game. Picture: @Kontar81

In a more recent video, he said his mum had seen him being interviewed on TV and told him she didn't like his longer beard and haircut.

Mr Kontar acknowledged there were Syrian refugees in greater peril, but his situation reflected a humanitarian crisis.

"The minute the Turkish [airline] cancelled my ticket and did not allow me to board, it was not because of me, Hassan, it was because of my nationality," he said.

"From that point, it became a general problem, not a personal one."

When he started talking about his story on Twitter, Mr Kontar tagged in people who could possibly help: major media outlets, politicians, and even the actor Tom Hanks, who starred in The Terminal - a film inspired by the real-life story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, another man who lived in an airport.

“When the world is judging you just because you are Syrian, 26 days stuck at Kuala Lumpur airport and I am still waiting someone to hear,” he captioned this image. Picture: @Kontar81
“When the world is judging you just because you are Syrian, 26 days stuck at Kuala Lumpur airport and I am still waiting someone to hear,” he captioned this image. Picture: @Kontar81

HELP FROM AN UNLIKELY SOURCE

Recently, Mr Kontar found a bit more to hope for. The United Nations Refugee Agency has been in touch with him and has been working to get Malaysian officials to review his situation.

But the most hope is coming from a perhaps unlikely source: a group of residents in Whistler, Canada.

Canadian woman Laurie Cooper told CBC she came across Mr Kontar's story on Twitter and began to send him money for food. She also began looking into his options.

 

Mr Kontar has been posting regular updates on life at the airport. Picture: @Kontar81
Mr Kontar has been posting regular updates on life at the airport. Picture: @Kontar81

"Originally we were just trying to find a safe place for him to go," Ms Cooper said.

"But when we started researching his options, there really weren't any good [ones] and it occurred to us that probably the simplest thing to do was to sponsor him to come here."

Now, Ms Cooper and some friends have raised enough money to sponsor Mr Kontar and have set him up with a job and accommodation in Whistler - if they can get him there.

They've sent a request to the Canadian immigration minister, asking him to allow Mr Kontar to travel to Canada while his application for a temporary resident permit is processed.

In the meantime, Mr Kontar is still at terminal two at Kuala Lumpur airport, waiting for news on the application from his new Canadian friends ("my own real Avengers," he called them).

He is also urging his followers to contact the Canadian immigration office and support his bid to secure a new home - an infinitely better home - in Canada.

"I am a highly-qualified professional, desperate for a place where I can be safe, legal, not looking over my shoulder or being on the run," he said. "A place where I can work and prove myself."


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