Man at The Airport A Syrian refugee’s story in his own words

Story and photos by Hassan Al Kontar

Editor’s Note: Syrian refugee Hassan Al Kontar became the centre of a global media firestorm last year while stranded in a Malaysian airport. After a lengthy ordeal that saw him spend seven months in the airport’s arrivals terminal, followed by two isolating months in a Malaysian detention centre, Al Kontar was relocated to Canada—and Whistler, specifically—thanks to an international campaign spearheaded by local resident and retired journalist Laurie Cooper, with whom Hassan now lives.

But that’s not where Hassan’s story ends. Today, he is settling into his new life in Whistler, still far from his home and, more importantly, the loved ones he holds dear. Pique approached Hassan to write about the harrowing experience behind him and the evolving future that lies ahead. The essay that follows has been lightly edited for grammar and clarity.

They say “thank you” a lot.

They say “sorry” a lot, even if it’s not their fault. And they hug a lot. These were some of my first impressions of Canadians and the community of Whistler. Personally, I love all three things—especially the last one. Now when someone approaches me to say hello, I just throw myself at them and hug them. I figure it is going to happen anyway, so I might as well be the one to do it.

“How do you find Whistler so far?” That’s the typical question I am asked, and normally I am stuck with providing typical answers. It is a beautiful place. The people are friendly. But, in truth, it is much more than that.

When I was a child, my parents would read to me from a book about a village in the high mountains, covered in snow, with wooden cabins. It was a place where everyone smiled at everyone else, where you can read the love in people’s eyes—and feel it, too. A peaceful, quiet place. Some days I feel like I am living in the pages of that book.

When I was a child, my parents would read to me from a book about a village in the high mountains, covered in snow, with wooden cabins. It was a place where everyone smiled at everyone else, where you can read the love in people’s eyes—and feel it, too. A peaceful, quiet place. Some days I feel like I am living in the pages of that book.

Hassan in snowy Whistler Village

A Christmas to remember

I am from a part of the world where life teaches us to be much more serious. Even before the war in Syria, it was a precarious existence. We lived with uncertainty from day to day, never feeling secure and always fearing the future. That was why I left Syria in 2006. Young, smart and full of dreams, I moved to Dubai to build a better life for myself and, hopefully, a safer future for my family. Everything was working according to plan until war broke out in my country in 2011.

From that moment, my destiny was taken out of my hands.

I have always been very close to my family and each member of them has played an important role in providing me with the strength to get through these past few years. One of the most difficult things I have ever done in my life was saying goodbye to them the first time I left Syria. On the day I left, my father asked: “What am I going to do without you?”

My father had a very strong influence on me as a child. In a strange way, I think he knew that I was going to face difficulties in my life, and he worked hard to prepare me. From an early age, he took me to our family farm and taught me the value of hard work. All day, we laboured side by side in the fields, and then, at night, he would sit beside me and read to me about history, politics and culture. It was the best education I could have hoped for.

Our family had a small olive farm in the town where my father grew up. There were some grapevines and a small house and we would spend the weekends there. It was a simple existence. There was no electricity. But my father took the opportunity to teach us about the truly important things in life. He reminded us of our roots, the value of nature and the Earth. The hard work on the farm made me physically strong, but it also gave me an appreciation of the sound of water and the smell of wet earth after a rainfall. I would later draw on these memories to get me through some of the most difficult times in my life.

“ ... on this particular day, I leaned my back against the wall and collapsed, sliding to the floor. I couldn’t take any more. Nothing made sense.”

The world first heard about me in the spring of 2018 after I became trapped in an arrivals terminal at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. As the bearer of a Syrian passport, I was unable to leave the country and, because I had overstayed my visitor visa, I was also unable to re-enter Malaysia. I was stuck in a bureaucratic limbo that stretched out for nine months: seven in the airport and two in a Malaysian detention centre. Throughout that time, I thought a lot about my father and what he had taught me. It is because of him that I was able to keep going and refused to be intimidated by the government officials and rules that held me there. Although my father passed away in 2016, I wanted him to be proud of me, and I was certain that he was smiling down on me from above, knowing that I was doing the right thing by standing up for myself.

But on this particular day, I leaned my back against the wall and collapsed, sliding to the floor. I couldn’t take any more. Nothing made sense. I looked up towards the ceiling. This is too much. Why is this happening to me? What did I do to deserve all of this?

I don’t know if I was speaking to God or to myself. I was in an airport in Cambodia when the authorities told me that I would not be allowed to enter their country. A week before, a Turkish Airlines employee had kept me waiting for two hours before cancelling the ticket I had bought to go to Ecuador, where I had hoped to seek asylum. I had spent my whole fortune on that ticket, nearly $2,000, money my mother sent after selling a beautiful gold necklace. Ecuador was supposed to be my escape plan. When that didn’t work, I tried to go to Cambodia. Both times I was turned away, I asked the same question: “Would you treat me this way if I had a passport from the U.S. or U.K. or Canada?” Then I walked away before I had to listen to whatever lies they were going to tell me.

In that Cambodian airport, I realized that it was not me, but my nationality that was the cause of my problems. That moment changed me and it has changed the path I will take for the rest of my life. My personal story became the story of every Syrian who was looking for a safe place to live. That’s why, when I decided that the only way to fight for my survival was to take my story to the world, through social media, my first tweet was about what it means to be Syrian. I felt and still feel a responsibility towards my people. Not speaking on their behalf, but speaking about them. Not complaining about our situation, but explaining what we are going through and what we have been going through since 2011. Whenever I could, I delivered my statements with a smile. It seemed to me that people have enough of their own problems. They probably didn’t want to listen to another guy crying for sympathy online. Not everyone understood what I was trying to do. I have been attacked by many people on social media, but I try not to waste time or energy worrying about them. I need to maintain my focus on the main battle—to stand up for my people and for refugees everywhere.

Here’s how I once described living at the airport for all those months: It’s like someone forcing you to take a yoga class when you would really prefer to be taking a dance class. You don’t want to be there, but you have no choice. I had no option but to make the best of a bad situation. I was living in the Air Asia arrivals terminal without access to shops or restaurants. I ate leftover airline meals—rice with a piece of chicken—three times a day for seven months.

“ ... my mother gave me another gift that would ultimately save my life. When I was a kid, she would force me to take English classes during the summer.”

They didn’t provide anything to drink, and I love coffee, so every day I tried to persuade (a.k.a. bribe) one of the members of the airport cleaning staff to bring me a coffee. The staff member didn’t speak any English, so to break through the language barrier, I downloaded the Starbucks logo, sent it to them on WhatsApp, showed them the shop’s location on Google Maps and then texted the kind of coffee I wanted. They would go out into the main terminal, look for the logo and show my order to the barista. The whole process could take up to four hours for a single cup of coffee. Sometimes I would ask them to get me food from McDonalds. It was so difficult to explain things to them that I ended up ordering the same McDonalds meal the entire time I was there. But even that was better than what we were given in the detention centre. We got cold tea in plastic bags! Now that I am in Whistler and I am able to cook for myself, it is about much more than simply preparing food. It is an act that confirms my status as a free person once again. Thank goodness Laurie and her family love eating what I cook.

Tweeting his message to the world

When people have no other choice, they will find a way to adjust to their circumstances in order to survive. I was sleeping on chairs or under an escalator. I was eating the same food day after day. I was driven crazy by the constant airline announcements day and night, but I still managed to have a bit of fun. I had a little red stuffed animal that I called Miss Crimson. I made videos of me taking Miss Crimson on walks around the terminal and letting her look out the windows at the airplanes. I adopted a small plant in one of the bathrooms and took care of it. Now that I am in Whistler, I have a real cat. Her name is Mittens and my friend Laurie calls her my girlfriend because she follows me everywhere in the house. She sleeps with me every night and she takes up the whole bed, just leaving a narrow strip for me. So far, she is my only girlfriend. I may have been like a lion in a cage facing down governments when I was stuck at the airport, but I am out of practice and still a little bit shy when it comes to speaking to women.

“Listen, I am being guarded by eight police officers, so I don’t want you to cry because you might make me cry and I don’t want to look weak in front of them.”

These were the first words I spoke to my mother after 58 days in a Malaysian detention centre. I was at the airport again, but this time I was about to fly to freedom and safety in Canada. After seven months of living in limbo in the airport, I had been arrested and threatened with deportation to Syria. Going back to Syria would have meant certain imprisonment—and possibly worse. Throughout my time in the detention centre, I had been unable to contact my family. Needless to say, my mother wasn’t able to stop from crying that day, but for the first time in eight years, they were tears of happiness—and that was priceless to me.

While my father prepared me physically and mentally to face anything life would throw at me, my mother gave me another gift that would ultimately save my life. When I was a kid, she would force me to take English classes during the summer. I hated it. I wanted to be out playing with my friends. I didn’t understand why I had to learn English. Now I know that without her, I would not be here in Canada. It is because I spoke some English that I was able to communicate with the Western media and, ultimately, the Canadian volunteers who helped get me here.

Throughout my time in the airport and in detention, my sister Solaf never stopped supporting me and sending her love. Even when I was in jail and I had no way to see her messages, she wrote to me on Facebook or WhatsApp to tell me how much she cared and how much she worried about me. My relationship with my younger brother Ammar is especially important to me. After the death of my father, I feel responsible for his happiness and well being. One of my greatest regrets is that I was not able to be at his wedding. He got married while I was living in the airport. He didn’t want to, but I insisted. “I want to be the reason for your happiness, not the person who makes you put your life on hold. You have my absolute blessing,” I reassured him.

Perhaps the darkest day of my life was a week before my brother’s wedding. During what was just another normal day at the airport, I started seeing strange news reports coming from my home city in Syria of Sweida. ISIS was attacking some villages and there had been three suicide bombings. I felt completely powerless. As the eldest son, it is my job to protect my family, but here I was sitting on a chair in an airport, hundreds of miles away. I wasn’t there for my family when they needed me the most. This is a feeling that I know will never leave me.


When I boarded the flight that would take me to Canada, I looked like a man from the Stone Age. For nine months, I hadn’t been able to cut my hair or trim my beard. As I took my seat on the plane, I was focused on only one thing: coffee. I asked the flight attendant to keep it coming. You don’t realize how much the small things in life mean to you until you don’t have them. In the detention centre, I was always cold. I had no blanket and the cell was so crowded that sometimes I couldn’t even lie down to sleep. I had only the clothes I was wearing—and they were filthy. But I kept my spirits up by singing and dreaming about the future. I refused to give up hope. I am going to win this damn thing, I kept saying to myself.

People often think that those who have survived through difficult circumstances are somehow better than they are. They assume we have never made mistakes in our life, that we don’t know fear. They call us heroes. In truth, we are people who have made many mistakes and have felt more fear than most. I still live in fear—although it is a different type of fear. I am afraid of forgetting the people who still need help. I am afraid of disappointing those people who have believed in me and supported me. I am afraid because I thought reaching Canada would be the end of my story, but it is really just a new beginning, with much bigger responsibilities this time. I lived in fear for so long that I find it difficult to enjoy each day. I am haunted by the faces of the people I have met over the years who were only searching for safety and a chance to love and be loved.

In life, we have dreams, we have aims and we have goals. But dreams are not meant to come true; that is why we call them dreams and why they are usually consigned to childhood. But being in Whistler, after years of being homeless, illegal, jobless, on the run, and in hiding; after seven months of sleeping in an airport chair, listening to the endless flight announcements, hiding myself under an escalator just to avoid the stares or constant questions, all of that made me realize that I was wrong. Dreams can come true. You may be able to live your fairytale story, but you will never be able to run from your past or who you are or what you are meant to be. Destiny, some call it.

Now everything is starting to make sense again. I didn’t go through everything I did because I am a bad person. Everything that happened to me has led to a new path in life. I believe I have a special role to play by continuing to raise awareness of the plight of the Syrian people, and of refugees everywhere. So when you start questioning yourself and wondering why certain things have happened, remember that the time will come when it begins to make perfect sense.

Is it worth it? I kept asking myself that question during my two months in prison. Is it worth being locked in a four- by five-metre cell with 40 other people, with the lights on 24 hours a day, an open toilet and only freezing water for washing? I wasn’t sure of the answers at the time, but now I am sitting here at Cranked Espresso Bar in Rainbow enjoying my coffee (they make great coffee, by the way), looking out at the beauty of Whistler and working on this article, knowing that now I have a home and a family that loves me and will take care of me. I am more than sure that it was absolutely worth it, and I’m ready to do it again and again.

“Now everything is starting to make sense again. I didn’t go through everything I did because I am a bad person. Everything that happened to me has led to a new path in life.”

I have so many names for her, nicknames that I created: my Canadian mother, Godmother, 007, the face of hope, the leader of my Avengers team, one of the Three Musketeers who helped me come to Canada after living for months in an airport and a Malaysian prison. Laurie Cooper is the real hero behind the scenes. She has choices in her life. Other people choose to enjoy their lives, travel the world, enjoy music, movies and take care of their house and their family. But Laurie took a different path in her life. She decided to make a difference and to be a good example for others to show that just one individual can change someone’s life. She gave her time and her children’s time to take care of other people’s children. She wants to give them the love, peace and hope they are missing. And so can you. Every individual can make a difference and save lives. It’s not as hard as you think and it will cost you nothing—just a belief in human rights.

Meanwhile, there is one important question that needs to be resolved: should I ski or snowboard?

Thank you Laurie, thank you Whistler, and thank you Canada.


Created By
Hassan Al Kontar


Photos by Hassan Al Kontar

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a copyright violation, please follow the DMCA section in the Terms of Use.