HE’S skinnier than I imagined from the photos and videos on social media. Not skin and bones, but he may actually be swimming in the clothes I brought for him.
Hassan Al Kontar is a 36-year-old Syrian refugee who has been residing in the arrivals terminal Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA2) since March 7. He was deported from the United Arab Emirates to Malaysia in January and overstayed his three-month tourist visa, so is blacklisted and cannot re-enter the country. There are no restaurants or shops where he’s stationed, only three mobile kiosks, a handful of chairs, and a restroom. Hassan sleeps on the floor.
Activist friends of mine connected us and I’m on a mission to deliver some essentials. He’d asked for flip flops, a clean change of clothes, a towel and a toothbrush. I also brought him a few snacks, paracetamol, and men’s grooming products to help him feel a bit more like himself. The day prior, a Zimbabwean couple visited and gave him some much-needed medicine.
Hassan sees me and a smile crosses his face. It’s not a broad, joyful smile nor is it fake. It feels like happiness mixed with fatigue and uncertainty. We hug. That was the most important mandate from the volunteers helping him. “Angela, give him a big hug from us all, make him feel loved, and try to give him hope,” were their exact words.
The first thing he does is to smell the clothes. He takes a deep breath in and holds it. “Oh Angela, you have no idea how good this smells to me.” I offer him money, which Hassan flat out refuses. He confesses that the last time he checked he had between three and four Ringgit – around 75 US cents – but he won’t accept money.
The jeans he is wearing are filthy. Not with a random stain here and there – although there are a couple of those, too – but they have a layer of grime to them that you’d more expect from someone working in a mechanic’s workshop.
While I was waiting to board my flight in Medan, my refugee advocate friends had learned that unofficial Malaysian channels had opened up and Hassan was going to be offered some form of temporary asylum in the country. Malaysian immigration officials have suggested that they will provide him with a special pass allowing him to stay in the country but that he would first undergo a routine, “extensive security process”.
We talk about the offer to reside in Malaysia and the rationale behind the volunteers’ request for him to accept it. According to the UN Refugee Agency, Malaysia is already home to almost 160,000 refugees and asylum seekers.
As he lays out the reason that he will not accept any country’s offer of a temporary solution, his energy picks up. “Right now, people know my name. They hear my story and it touches them. I have only love and gratitude for those people around the world who are helping me.”
“But I will not leave this place only to be back in the same situation I just came from.”
Hassan’s Syrian passport expires in nine months. If he accepts a temporary solution, but isn’t given residency in a country with local integration or permanent resettlement for asylum seekers, then he will not be improving his life for the long-term.
“Who will remember my name in nine months when my passport expires?” he says. At the moment, activists in Canada are helping raise money via GoFundMe to help him buy the six flights required to get him to Ecuador, where Syrians can enter the country visa free.
Right now, the world is watching. Hassan is appearing daily on the world’s largest news channels and armies of volunteers in countries all around the world are fighting on his behalf.
He now receives so many messages that it’s impossible to reply to them all, he confides, including media requests. He’ll respond to bigger channels but says he just can’t stay on top of it all. That day alone, he had done interviews with the BBC, CBS, and Huffington Post. Vice on HBO’s team has flown in to make a documentary about his predicament that aired yesterday.
I ask him what it’s like to read about himself in the news every day now and he shares that it’s mostly positive, but he admits that some of it bothers him. He wasn’t trying to get to Ecuador because it was a life’s goal, but rather that it was a rare country that accepts Syrians.
“My goal is to live in a country that respects hard work and will respect me,” he said. “I want to be at peace, so if a country is nice and I can work there, then that is all I need.”
Hassan’s situation has been compared to that of Tom Hanks’ character in the 2004 film The Terminal, who is stuck in New York’s JFK Airport after his fictional Eastern European country’s government collapses.
“Being compared with the film with Tom Hanks bothers me,” says Hassan. “I’m stuck in an area of the airport with only three mobile phone counters, how is that the same? And honestly, if Catherine Zeta Jones wanted to go on a date with me I would live here forever. Come on, it’s ridiculous!”
Still, he says he’ll play along and is using the hashtag #the_terminal_movie_2 to document his time at KLIA.
#syrian_stuck_at_airport#mystory_Hassan #airport_is_my_home#the_terminal_movie_2 #سوري_عالق_بمطار_كوالالمبور_الدولي#birthday #Friends #football #DateMyFamily #GE14 #AvengersSG #LondonMarathon #MeToo #mnwild #syria #TamilCinemaStrike pic.twitter.com/LlX0gx3TkE
— Hassan Al Kontar (@Kontar81) April 18, 2018
We talk a bit about his family. Out of fear for what might happen to them, their story is off the record. But Hassan shares photos from his childhood, including one where he looks like a 90s boy band member that makes us both laugh.
“I can’t even remember when I went on my last date. Because of where I was born, when I tell someone this, it changes something. I am not judged by who I am or what I do but many times for being Syrian. It makes it very hard to date and just live a normal life.”
Hassan is tired. Tired from not having a decent night’s sleep in over 40 days. Tired of being strong. Tired of fighting for the right to live a life of peace.
He hopes that his plight will shine light on the loopholes and rings of fire that Syrians must jump through simply to travel from point A to point B. And it’s shocking how few ‘travel points’ are even open to them, let alone how few countries open their doors to accept war-torn Syrian refugees as new citizens.
“This isn’t my war. I don’t want to kill anyone and I don’t want to be killed,” says Hassan, his smile disappearing. “I know that if I am forced to return to Syria I will die.”
Angela Carson is a features and travel writer. Together with Hassan Al Kontar, she is now writing a book about his life as Syrian refugee living in Malaysia’s main airport.