LONDON: With the world’s attention focused on Saturday’s US-led missile strikes on Syria, the desperate plight of one Syrian has gone unnoticed. Hassan Al-Kontar has been stranded in the transit zone of Kuala Lumpur International Airport for more than a month because no country will take him.
In a case reminiscent of Steven Spielberg’s film The Terminal, Al-Kontar, 36, has been living in the Malaysian airport terminal for 40 days, ever since his bid to find a country that would allow him in without a visa ran out.
“I have nowhere to sleep but the uncomfortable chairs, given one meal per day. I don’t have a clean set of clothing nor do I have a proper shower,” he told Arab News.
While he waits it out in the airport, Al-Kontar has been posting video blogs on Twitter and Facebook telling the world of his plight. He left Syria in 2006 and was working for a private company in the UAE until 2011 before his passport expired. With the start of the Syrian war, the company refused to renew his work permit and he remained in the country illegally until 2017.
He decided not to return home to avoid conscription in the Syrian army. “I am not a coward,” he said. “I simply refuse to participate in a war that is not mine and I refuse to kill my own people. I can never go back.
To those who sent me what do I think about temporary solutions.— Hassan Al Kontar (@Kontar81) April 13, 2018
I thank you.
FYI: I believe in humanity no matter what your religious, colour, Ethnicity so to those who say I am maybe a terrorist or ISIS. Well i am sorry to inform you that Iam belong to minority.
“In 2017, the Syrian government granted me a passport renewal for two years, but I could only renew it once,” Al-Kontar said. “I decided that I needed a new fresh start somewhere else and so I gave myself up to the UAE authorities, where I was then deported to Malaysia.”
He was allowed into Malaysia on a visitor’s visa. “It was difficult, though I was given a visa upon arrival, since Syrians are not required to have an existing visa, but the problem was that there were no jobs that paid well, living expenses were high and my time was running out.”
As a Syrian, he isn’t allowed in without a visa to many countries, but he devised another plan. Ecuador, one of the few countries in the world to allow Syrians in without a visa, was next. He contacted the Ecuadorian Embassy to confirm this and booked a flight on Turkish Airlines through Istanbul to Bogota, Colombia onward to Quito, Ecuador via Turkish Airlines and Avianca Air.
He encountered his first problem while trying to board his Turkish Airlines flight. “The airline-counter officer refused to look me in the eye, showed signs of ill intent and interrogated me. It was unnerving and very displeasing.
“The officer … claimed that there was no agreement between Avianca Air and Turkish Airlines to transfer my luggage to the next flight to Ecuador. The ticket cost me approximately $2,300 and after waiting for two hours, I was denied boarding and was sent back to Kuala Lumpur.”
Al-Kontar was in shock, having spent almost all his money on his failed bid. He said he had provided all the necessary documents and had been assured by both the Turkish and Colombian embassies that he did not require a transit visa to reach Ecuador. “I was back at square one. This has taken a major toll on me financially and emotionally.”
He then flew to Cambodia, where Syrians are granted visas upon arrival, but was turned back on the same flight to Kuala Lumpur when he didn’t meet certain requirements.
“I was denied re-entry or renewal of my visa to Malaysia, and I’ve been here in the transit terminal since the seventh of March.”
That’s when Al-Kontar began his social media campaign. “I started to take matters in my own hands, posted daily vlogs and contacted every organization I could think of to tell them of my plight. This is uncalled for and I am in a weak state of mind to handle this any longer. I received many emails back giving me ‘advice’ on how to handle things, but advice will not get me out of the airport and find a stable place to live.”
His 40 days have been filled with nothing more than walking around the terminal and trying to figure out his next move. “I am neither the first nor the last Syrian to be stuck in transit. I feel like my life is in limbo. My case is not a political one, it’s humanitarian,” Al-Kontar told Arab News.
On April 12, he met a UNHCR representative in Malaysia and after a lengthy interview, his plight has become known to them as well as Human Rights Watch. His legal status is still unknown.
With the amount of media pressure and an upcoming election, Malaysia’s deputy home minister said his ministry is aware of Al-Kontar’s case, according to The Star, the country’s largest English-language newspaper.
Al-Kontar confirmed news that the ministry has considered issuing him a special pass under the Syrian Refugee Program, but he has refused the offer. “I refused for various reasons, the first being that it’s not a program that can grant me a place in society. Malaysia is not part of the 1951 Refugee Convention, and so this program is one that benefits a specific segment of Syrians. Second, I am not allowed to work or make a living and if I try to do so, I’ll be expelled. Why should I succumb to this? I’d rather stay in the airport until further notice,” Al-Kontar said.
“This is a propaganda stunt and it only delayed my problem. The program in question is run by private entities and has provided 3,000 Syrians so-called refugee status, but that’s far from the truth. It will only protect them after their three-month visitor’s visa expires. Once my passport is expired, I’ll be here for good and will never be allowed out,” Al-Kontar said.
Furthering his plight, the program isn’t officially recognized on an international level. If Al-Kontar agrees, his status will not be determined by any UN-affiliated organization.
Awaiting his fate, Al-Kontar has assured Arab News that he will not succumb to the pressure he’s under to cave in. “I call on the international community to review my case. I do not intend to do anything but start a life somewhere safe and work to give back to a country that can accept me.”