A Syrian man who had been stranded at a terminal at a Malaysian airport for the past seven months has finally arrived in Canada, ending a long ordeal that highlighted asylum seekers’ often bizarre quest for refuge.
On Monday night, Hassan Al Kontar landed at Vancouver airport, wearing flip-flops and a T-shirt. He became a permanent resident upon landing, since Canada had already recognised him as a refugee.
Al Kontar’s plight became widely known after he shared posts on social media that showed him surviving on donated airline meals, washing and giving himself a haircut in the toilets at Kuala Lumpur International Airport’s Terminal 2.
His ordeal began when he was refused a new Syrian passport while working in the United Arab Emirates in 2012.
The 37-year-old was afraid of returning home because he refused to enlist in the army. His only choice was to go to Malaysia, one of the few countries where Syrians did not need a visa.
After outstaying his Malaysian tourist visa, he paid a penalty before attempting to depart but was not allowed to board his Ecuador-bound flight. He similarly tried to go to Cambodia but was deported back to Malaysia.
Millions of Syrians have fled a devastating seven-year civil war that has left more than 350,000 people dead.
Al Kontar ended up at the airport terminal’s domestic transfer lounge, where he spent the past seven months looking for options.
He took to social media to document his everyday life, catching the attention of a group of Canadian volunteers who filed a refugee application on his behalf in April.
With processing time for refugee applications lasting up to 23 months, a Canadian group lobbied with the authorities to let him into the country until his legal status was formalised, but to no avail.
Meanwhile, his paperwork for asylum was cleared in Canada.
Al Kontar said he had been too excited since his arrival to sleep. “In real life, there are moments that are more beautiful than the dream itself.”
He said the first thing he did on stepping out of the Vancouver airport into the rain was to breathe in his new surroundings.
“For me, walking on the street again and smelling the fresh air, it’s not a normal thing: It’s the sound and smell of freedom.”