Hassan Al Kontar has been living in a transit terminal of Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia for more than one month.
The 36-year-old Syrian is 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 his war-torn country.
“I hear people shouting at the counter for delays of five or 10 minutes — and meanwhile, I have been here for 35 days,” Al Kontar told The Intercept, laughing with dark humor.
The Syrian war changed everything for Al Kontar
Seven years ago, Al Kontar was a successful Arab expat living and working in Abu Dhabi. Then, circumstances entirely out of his control changed everything.
It was 2011 and the Syrian conflict started, just when Al Kontar's passport expired. Young Syrian men are required to serve in the military, and those who go abroad and avoid service are considered disloyal by the government.
Although it's normally routine to renew your passport from a foreign country, Al Kontar's application was denied with the outbreak of the war. Fearing that he would be forcibly drafted or imprisoned if he returned to Syria to attempt to renew his documents, Al Kontar decided to remain illegally in the United Arab Emirates. His UAE residency permit was of course contingent on maintaining a valid passport.
As a result, he lost his job as an insurance marketing manager. He was forced to work under-the-table gigs for low pay to survive.
"For those five years, I was constantly hiding from the police,” he said. “Sometimes I was homeless. I know what it means to be hungry for days, because of that time.”
Al Kontar has tried everything to find a place to live legally
In January of 2017, Al Kontar was deported from the UAE. The authorities gave him a choice, he could either return to Syria or travel to Malaysia, one of very few countries that still accept Syrians without visas.
He decided to take his chances with Malaysia, but his visa was only for three months. After that, he quickly found that it would be incredibly difficult to stay in the Southeast Asian country legally as well. Unable to get residency, he remained their 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. However, traveling around the world to Ecuador as a Syrian is not without its challenges. It's not as simple as buying the cheapest plane ticket.
Even to transit through airports in many countries, Syrians are required to apply for visas, with no promise of being allowed to obtain them. 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 Feb. 28, Turkish Airlines refused to allow him to travel, without giving an explanation.
He has no idea what to do next
With most of his remaining savings spent on the ticket, and unable to reenter Malaysia, Al Kontar has been forced to remain in the Asia Airlines transit terminal of the Kuala Lumpur airport, his own personal purgatory.
"I don't know how long I will be here. I know of some Syrian people who were stuck in the airport for a year," he told Sky News this week.
"For the first seven days I was trying to clean myself somehow using the toilet facilities. It's so small and cold. I can't take a shower, I can't dry my clothes if I'm going to wash them, because it is an airport and there is no privacy."
Al Kontar told the BBC that he has spoken with some officials from the United Nations but has no idea how to resolve his situation.
"I don't know what to do. I have no one to advise me on where I can go. I really need help because I believe the worst is yet to come," he said.
Phil Robertson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said that Malaysia "needs to demonstrate compassion and provide humanitarian assistance."
"The government should ensure UNHCR is able to speedily and effectively interview him and adjudicate his claim for asylum," Robertson said. "If he's found to be a refugee, it's urgent that Malaysia permit him to seek third country resettlement without hindrance."
Until some resolution is found, Al Kontar is just waiting, posting occasional updates on Twitter and hoping someone will notice and try to help him.