Wednesday marks a long-awaited milestone for Syrian refugee Hassan Al Kontar. After years of uncertainty – including seven months spent stranded in a Malaysia airport – Al Kontar has finally become a Canadian citizen.
“Today is kind of a declaration of winning after all these years,” Kontar told Al Jazeera during a phone call just before the citizenship ceremony. “Today I am stateless no more.”
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Now 41 years old, Al Kontar first gained the world’s attention in 2018 when he started to chronicle his ordeal in the airport on social media. Having fled the war in Syria, Al Kontar found himself stuck in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport without legal immigration papers, unable to leave or travel to another country.
His posts attracted sympathy from around the world and drew attention to the labyrinthine process many asylum seekers navigate as they try to escape violence and persecution.
As he prepared to take Canada’s oath of citizenship on Wednesday, Al Kontar said his long fight to find refuge has finally been vindicated. But he also reflected on the sacrifices he made to arrive at this point.
“For this, I lost a destroyed country. I was not able to be there for my father when he needed me the most or to be by his side when he passed away. I watched my brother’s wedding over Skype when I was stuck at the airport. I was jailed and faced a racist system,” Al Kontar told Al Jazeera.
Millions displaced in Syrian war
In 2011, during mass protests across the Arab world, dubbed the “Arab Spring”, demonstrators in Syria took to the streets to demand democratic reforms. But faced with a violent crackdown under Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, what started as a protest movement soon became a civil war.
More than 350,000 people have been killed in the decade since, and more than 13 million Syrians have been displaced, according to the United Nations. Of the latter, more than 6.6 million are outside of the country, with many stuck in refugee camps and trapped in legal limbo.
Al Kontar told Al Jazeera that, instead of receiving support and assistance, Syrian refugees have often found themselves shut out as countries heighten immigration restrictions and seek to keep asylum seekers at arm’s length.
Many have risked their lives in desperate efforts to reach Europe, embarking on deadly journeys and frequently paying with their lives. Those who arrive safely face an uncertain future. Countries like Denmark have tried to send asylum seekers back to war-torn Syria.
“All of the doors have been closed in our faces,” Al Kontar said. “We Syrians are survivors. We are trying our best. But the refugee problem is escalating and most countries are not keeping their promises.”
A long ordeal
Al Kontar lived in the United Arab Emirates for 11 years. He was deported in October 2017 because he had refused a new Syrian passport, fearing he would be forced to return to Syria to serve in the military for the Assad regime.
He was sent to Malaysia, one of the few countries where Syrians can receive a visa on entry. But his three-month tourist visa soon expired.
Al Kontar paid a penalty fee for overstaying his visa and attempted to fly to Ecuador but was not allowed onto the plane. He tried to go to Cambodia but was again sent back to Malaysia.
With no home to return to and no state to call his own, Al Kontar spent more than half a year living in Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s domestic transfer terminal.
It was during that time Al Kontar began to document his everyday experiences, sharing videos on social media showing, for example, what it is like to improvise a haircut in an airport toilet. He also spoke of the plight facing Syrian refugees.
This is a day that cost me a father, a destroyed homeland, prison, persecution, tears, blood, & fifteen years of being away from my loved ones.
Wishing the same for every oppressed freedom fighter.
Wishing the same for every refugee in refugee camps.
Today is a day like no other pic.twitter.com/EDPelxvIcI
— Hassan Al Kontar (@Kontar81) January 11, 2023
Things took a turn for the worse when Malaysian authorities arrested Al Kontar in October 2018. He was sent to a detention centre, where authorities said they would seek to deport him to Syria.
Immigrants in detention centres around the world often experience gruelling and dangerous conditions. Malaysia’s human rights body SUHAKAM has described the country’s detention facilities as “torture-like”.
Al Kontar’s social media posts had caught the attention of a handful of volunteers in Canada, who filed a refugee application on his behalf. After his arrest, Canada cleared him for asylum, and he touched down in Vancouver in November 2018.
When he arrived, he stepped out of the airport and inhaled the fresh air. “For me, walking on the street again and smelling the fresh air, it’s not a normal thing,” he said at the time. “It’s the sound and smell of freedom.”
Years of separation
In the years since, Al Kontar has worked to adjust to life in Canada, overcoming obstacles familiar to anyone who has adapted to life in a new country: finding a job, filling out immigration paperwork and getting acquainted with new surroundings.
His first job was as a barista, serving tea and coffee as he pursued a career as a case worker with the Red Cross. Now, after dozens of online courses, that goal has become a reality. As part of the Canadian Red Cross, Al Kontar has helped with COVID-19 vaccination efforts and serves on a flood recovery team.
He has also found time to write a book about his experiences, titled Man at the Airport: How Social Media Saved My Life.
“We want to contribute to the countries where we live,” Al Kontar said. “We will be a good addition to any community we live in.”
Now, with the prospect of finally having a Canadian passport, Al Kontar hopes he can realise two of his dreams: travelling to a refugee camp as a case worker to assist those struggling with statelessness and reuniting with his family after nearly 15 years of separation.
Al Kontar was able to help his family escape Syria and said they have been living in Egypt for the last four months. “I hope to see them as soon as I can,” he told Al Jazeera. “In the future, I will bring them to live in Canada.”
While Al Kontar is critical of governments that have responded to the refugee crisis with a regime of walls, restrictions and detention centres, he said people in Canada have been welcoming.
“The people in Canada are kind and polite,” he said. “They say ‘thank you’ and ‘sorry’ countless times for no obvious reason.”
He also enjoys Canada’s natural beauty and switched to video chat to show Al Jazeera a group of deer approaching him in the snow.
“I think maybe they have come to celebrate with me,” he said.