He was rejected by several countries, left stranded in an airport for over six months, and held in a detention center for two months. But, Syrian Hassan Al Kontar has finally been granted asylum in Canada.
37-year-old Al Kontar was stuck in the transit zone of Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur International Airport for several months due to his expired passport and fear of returning to his war-torn country.
After months of campaigning, lawyers and activists succeeded in securing his release and sponsoring him for refugee status in Canada.
In March 2018, Al Kontar took to Twitter to share his plight, posting regular updates about his case and sharing details about his daily life at the airport.
Fast forward to October, Al Kontar was still stranded in the Malaysian airport. However, his followers stopped hearing from him until earlier this week, when he announced he had been granted asylum in Canada.
According to BuzzFeed, Malaysian authorities had placed him in a detention center for the past two months.
Thanks to the efforts of activists and volunteers at the Canada Caring Society and British Columbia Muslim Association, who launched an online petition that garnered 62,000 signatures, Al Kontar finally arrived in Canada after being granted asylum.
"We have raised over $20,000 to sponsor him. He has a full time job offer at a hotel in Whistler. And he has close relatives living in Canada," Laurie Cooper, a media relations consultant who volunteers at Canada Caring Society, said in October.
In the video in which he announced the news, Al Kontar admitted that his journey had been difficult, but made sure to thank his supporters and all those who helped him make it to Canada.
Who is Al Kontar?
Seven years ago, Al Kontar was a successful Arab expat living and working in the United Arab Emirates. Then, circumstances entirely out of his control changed everything.
Al Kontar's passport expired around the time the Syrian conflict erupted in 2011. Young Syrian men were required to serve in the military, and those who went abroad and avoided service were considered disloyal by the government.
While it is usually routine to renew one's passport from a foreign country, Al Kontar's application was denied with the outbreak of the war.
Fearing he would be forcibly drafted or imprisoned if he returned to Syria to renew his documents, Al Kontar decided to remain illegally in the UAE. His UAE residency permit was contingent on maintaining a valid passport.
"A big unwelcoming world"
As a result, he lost his job as an insurance marketing manager and was forced to work under-the-table gigs for low pay to survive.
"For those five years, I was constantly hiding from the police. Sometimes I was homeless. I know what it means to be hungry for days, because of that time," he said when he first shared his story.
In October 2017, Al Kontar was deported from the UAE to Malaysia, one of few countries that still accept Syrians without visas ahead of arrival.
When his visa expired after three months, Al Kontar found it would be incredibly difficult to stay in the Southeast Asian country legally as well. Unable to get residency, he remained there illegally until February.
After much research, he realized Ecuador was the best option for his future. The South American country still allows Syrians to enter, recognizes refugees, and has a clear path to residency.
Al Kontar decided his best option would be to fly with Turkish Airlines to Turkey, then to Colombia, and then to Ecuador. The ticket cost a hefty $2,300, but when he tried to board his flight on February 28, Turkish Airlines refused to allow him to travel, without giving an explanation.
He then found himself stuck in the airport, without enough money to buy an onward ticket (if a country would even accept him upon arrival,) unable to re-enter Malaysia due to visa restrictions, and afraid to return to Syria.
He was placed in police custody in October, until activists successfully negotiated his release and planned his trip to Canada.
Not an isolated case
Syrian refugees everywhere feel "lonely, weak, unwanted, rejected," Al Kontar once said.
In a similar case back in 2014, six Syrian refugees became stranded in Phuket airport, Thailand, for three months as they tried to reach Europe using fake passports.
"There were six of us so we kind of helped each other survive. I think if it was only one guy there I would have collapsed, so I can't imagine what he's going through right now, being all alone there," one of the refugees, Majd Agha, said in response to Al Kontar's case, according to CBC.
Agha and his companions had contacted the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and were eventually offered asylum in Canada.