If you travel, you’ve probably experienced a layover somewhere at some point. It’s annoying, but it ends, and you can move on to wherever you’re headed and forget about it.
I quite like airports – the idea that when you’re in one you are everywhere and nowhere all at once is a nice one. That said, I wouldn’t want to live or get trapped in one.
Unfortunately for Hassan Al-Kontar (below), that’s exactly what happened.
VICE reports that they found Hassan Al-Kontar “sitting beside the transfer counter, staring intently at his phone” at Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2, Malaysia’s low-cost carrier terminal.
Although his appearance may be shrinking—he has lost weight in the five months he has been trapped at the airport as a victim of diplomatic bureaucracy—his presence is only becoming larger as his story continues to be shared in the media, with offers of help from around the world now including marriage proposals.
This increased celebrity has led to him hiding away most days, retreating underneath an escalator where he keeps his small number of belongings and a camping mattress, which he received from supporters after 50 days of sleeping on chairs or a blanket. Al-Kontar says he is tired and drained from telling the same story over and over, and has no desire to become a social media star.
Al-Kontar’s problems began with the outbreak of the civil war in Syria in 2011.
He had emigrated to the UAE in 2006 and worked in insurance marketing, but was called back home for military service. “I refused because there is no clear enemy here,” said Al-Kontar. “That is not why I was born into this life. That is not my existence. I refused to be a part of the killing machine to destroy my own house. I refused, like thousands of Syrians.”
In January of 2012, his passport ran out. He had refused military service, so he was unable to get a new one, which resulted in his company terminating his contract.
From then until January 2017, he lived as a stateless person, trapped in the UAE; unable to get a job as an illegal citizen. He lived on the streets, sleeping in cars, gardens, or wherever he could safely lay his head in temperatures of, at times, over 100 degrees.
Eventually, says Al-Kontar, he was caught, but one of his ex-colleagues was able to renew his passport for two years and handed it to him in jail. The authorities wanted to send him back to Syria, but he was able to convince airport officials to send him to Malaysia instead.
Malaysia is one of only a few countries that grants Syrians visas on arrival.
He was able to stay in the country for three months. He was unable to find a job, however, and ended up overstaying for a month. Eventually, he received money from his family to pay his fine for overstaying his visa and was able to extend it for a further 14 days. During those two weeks, he tried to leave the country twice.
The second time he attempted to leave, he made it to Cambodia, but was sent packing. When he arrived back in Malaysia on March 7, he realised that if he went through immigration he would be confined to a detention centre before being deported back to Syria.
Malaysia is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which protects the rights of refugees and outlines the obligation of the state to protect them. Thus, he never left the arrivals lounge and is still under the care of AirAsia, with the airline providing him the same three meals of chicken and rice every day.
Intelligent and articulate, Al-Kontar has versed himself in international human rights law during his long confinement. He feels that he has been failed by the very body set up to support displaced people, namely the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Al-Kontar claims that, after the initial media storm, the agency offered him a one-month special pass for Malaysia, even after being blacklisted from the country for overstaying his previous visa…
Al-Kontar hopes that a group of Canadian volunteers, who have petitioned their government to allow him to enter the country as a refugee and raised over $17,000 CAD [$13,136 USD] to sponsor him, will prove successful. However, there are no guarantees, and it can take up to 26 months to process an application. This process may be expedited, but Al-Kontar is painfully aware of his own privilege, compared to other refugees, in his somewhat gilded cage.
There are no coffee shops or vending machines in his section of the airport, and many have expressed concern for his mental health, but Al-Kontar remains positive and upbeat, even talking about the numerous marriage proposals that he has received, and turned down since his story exploded on social media.
Obsessed with the notion of finally being legal, Al-Kontar told me that he is turning down offers of marriage from around the world. One example being Leeloo Rie, who wrote on Facebook, “Hey Handsome, could we marry at this airport? If yes, I will be there before the winter! My proposal is serious.”
“Yesterday was the last one, from Miami,” said Al-Kontar. “There are proposals from Australia, America, Canada, EU countries, even Tahiti, Hawaii, and the Maldives… a lot! This is illegal itself to be married for visa purposes. All that I am asking for is to be legal. It’s a fraud itself! But it’s the only way they can help and they are offering some help, which is a great thing.”
For now, he is waiting to hear back about his application to Canada and hoping to move to a country that is a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention.
Overall, he’s looking forward to having a normal life, going to work, dating women who haven’t proposed to him on social media and not living in an airport.
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