TORONTO (Reuters) - A Syrian man who spent seven months stranded in a Malaysian airport arrived in Canada this week, ending a months-long ordeal that highlighted asylum seekers’ often bizarre quest for refuge.
Hassan Al Kontar got stuck in Kuala Lumpur International Airport in March after his Malaysian tourist visa expired and he was not allowed to board a flight to another country.
Kontar, 37, who left Syria before that country’s civil war erupted in 2011, had worked in the United Arab Emirates for several years but had to leave after his visa ran out. He said he could not return to his homeland because he refused to serve in the military.
During his months in Terminal 2 of the Kuala Lumpur airport, he lived off airline meals while trying to find a country that would give him a visa and documenting his travails to thousands of followers online.
He showed himself knitting, and celebrated when the sun peeked through the window or when, momentarily, a few fluorescent lights went off.
Documenting his ordeal “was a need,” he told Reuters by phone on Tuesday, because people “are in the dark when it comes to the refugee crisis.”
His plight caught the eye of Canadians who sought to privately sponsor him as a refugee.
“When we noticed he had this issue, he was stranded in the Malaysian airport and no place to go, nobody is accepting him, I offered: ‘We have space. We can bring him in to sponsor him,’” said Shawkat Hassan, with British Columbia’s Muslim Association, which helped sponsor Kontar.
The paperwork took months. During that time, Kontar was taken into Malaysian immigration detention and threatened with deportation to Syria.
On Monday night, he arrived at Vancouver International Airport wearing flip-flops and a T-shirt. He became a permanent resident on landing in Canada because the country had already recognized him as a refugee.
His sponsor, Laurie Cooper, drove him to her home in Whistler, British Columbia, where he is staying until he gets his bearings.
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.”
Reporting by Anna Mehler Paperny; Editing by Richard Chang and Peter Cooney