When civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Hassan Al Kontar was in the United Arab Emirates and, as a conscientious objector, refused to return to Syria for compulsory military service.
After years of living below the radar illegally, he was deported to Malaysia in 2018. A visa to anywhere was not in the cards.
That reality turned into a surreal situation that had him living for seven months in the arrival area of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. It was from there that Al Kontar documented his strange in limbo life on his social media. Those videos led to international attention and Canada granting him asylum. He moved to Whistler in 2018.
Now Al Kontar is living in Vancouver and works as an emergency care worker with the Red Cross. He recently was the Red Cross’s official international spokesperson for World Refugee Day.
Postmedia asked Al Kontar some questions about his life now and his new memoir Man@the_airport: How social Media Saved My Life.
Q: Why did you want to write this book?
A: I wanted to close the gap between East and West and educate westerners about Syrian history, culture and traditions. I also wanted to encourage people everywhere not to give up when they face a serious problem. If you believe in what you are doing, there is no breaking point for a human soul. Who we become during our march towards our dreams is more important than the dream itself.
Q: Was it hard to go back and write about your experiences?
A: It was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Some chapters, especially the one about my father’s death, were harder than others. But by the end I discovered that writing is therapeutic and started to realize that I was going to miss it a lot. Words become your friends. Ideas and memories become your sanctuary.
Q: It’s been 10 years since you were exiled from Syria. How, if at all, have things changed in your home country?
A: I can’t be 100 per cent sure of how much things have changed since I left, but I know for sure that this is no longer the country I knew, and those are not my people I left behind. The war may stop one day, but the people will not go back to who they were before.
Q: Are you able to keep in touch with family?
A: Yes, on a daily basis via WhatsApp.
Q: What do people ask you when they find out about your story?
A: That depends. Some will ask about the movie — “Did you watch The Terminal?” they will say — while others will ask serious questions about the situation, history and politics. Most are interested in how I managed to wait and live at the airport, both from a physical and spiritual point of view.
Q: You couldn’t talk about Syrian politics when you were there for fear of reprisals. Was it a relief to be able to finally voice your opinion about your homeland?
A: It’s priceless to feel that you now have a voice, value and opinion, and that no one is above the law. That is what makes Canada what it is, a country with human rights and freedom of speech. At the same time, hearing, reading and watching democracy is different from practising it. Every national debate is a teachable moment for me. I am almost 40 years old and I’ve never voted in my life.
Q: What do you think us western non-Syrians get wrong about Syria and its people?
A: Hollywood has planted this idea about all of us being Bedouin living in the desert with tents and camels. In fact, Damascus is the oldest inhabited city on Earth; it’s 10,000 years old. Westerners assume that all Arabs or Syrians are the same when we are not. Syria, for example, has more than 18 different ethnic and religious minorities.
Q: When you first got to Whistler in 2018, what was your first impression?
A: We as humans spend too much time imagining heaven when we have a live demo here on Earth. That is Whistler — the same view will take your breath away no matter how many times you see it.
Q: Did you have doubts when you first came here?
A: Not at all. I knew that I am good at adjusting. I accepted the fact that it’s a new country, a new culture and I need time to understand it.
Q: You were quoted as saying: “I will always be the man who was stuck at the airport — that’s the reality, that’s what the rest of my life is, so better to use it to help others.” So what have you been up to these past two years?
A: I do a lot of public speaking, especially with students, to shed more light on the refugee crisis. I also work with the MOSAIC settlement agency on Operation Not Forgotten, a plan to sponsor 250 refugees who have been stuck in Australia for years. And I have my job with the Red Cross.
Q: How does feel to now be a permanent resident of Canada?
A: Whenever I have a down moment here in Canada, I ask myself, “What is the worse that can happen now?” I am forever safe and legal, I have my life back as a free man, I have a home now and I can feel the future.
Q: We learn in the book your father wanted you to be a lawyer, but you hated it. You then had a lot of different jobs. Now you are officially a writer, so how does it feel?
A: I felt overwhelmed when I held my book in my hands. I always wanted to be a journalist and this brings me one step closer. I am proud of it and happy that I made my family proud. I found my passion; it’s what I was born to do.