By Eleanor Beevor
Hassan Al-Kontar has been living in the transit lounge of Kuala Lumpur International Airport since March 7th, 2018. He is unable to leave as no country will allow him to travel there. His social media profiles are his window to the rest of the world. His Twitter account is filled with funny, yet heart-breaking reflections on his situation. A few days ago, he wrote to NASA to apply to join their mission to Mars.
The application was tongue-in-cheek, telling NASA “I have a lot of space movies experience so I know my way around a spaceship including space combat from Star Wars movies so it will not take a long time for you to train me”.
But, he tells Albawaba.com, the sentiment behind it is serious, driven by the rejection he has experienced at the hands of countries across the world. Now, a volunteer group are trying to help bring him to Canada, and are petitioning to expedite his asylum application, a chance that Hassan sees as his last hope. He spoke to Al Bawaba about how he came to be here, what it’s like to live in an airport, and what he would like to tell world leaders.
Eleanor Beevor: Can you tell us about yourself, and about your life in Syria before this happened?
Hassan Al-Kontar: I’m from Suwayda City, 100 kilometres south of Damascus. I studied in Damascus, and in 2006 I travelled for the first time to the United Arab Emirates. I worked as an insurance marketing manager, in three different companies. My life in Syria was like any other guy. I travelled for two purposes. The first was to get a better life, and a better salary than in Syria. The second was to avoid military service, which is compulsory when you turn 18 or when you have finished studying. But if you are outside Syria and pay a certain amount of money you can avoid it. So most of us who have the choice to travel try to do it to build a better future. So I went to the UAE, and I was there until 2017. But my story began earlier. I was legal until 2001, working in insurance, in Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Hassan Al-Kontar (AFP)
Then in 2011, when the Syrian war started, I became wanted by the Syrian government to join the military service. I refused but not because I am a coward. I refused because it is against my principle. War is not a solution, it is not an answer. I refuse to be part of a killing machine, I refuse to kill my brothers or destroy homes. There is no enemy – both are my brothers. So I refused and I became wanted.
In 2012 my passport expired, and the Syrian Embassy in Abu Dhabi refused to renew it. After a short time I could not renew my work visa in the UAE, so my company terminated me. From 2012 to 2017 I was on the run. I was hiding, I was illegal. In 2017 the Emirati immigration authorities caught me. They jailed me, and they deported me to Malaysia. They had renewed my passport for two years only while I was in immigration jail so they could deport me. They deported me to Malaysia because it is one of the few countries to allow Syrians in with an arrival visa, but for 90 days only.
I tried to travel twice, to Ecuador for the same reason, because they allow Syrians a visa on arrival for 90 days. I thought maybe I could find work there as it’s impossible in Malaysia. But the Turkish Airlines [I was taking] did not allow me to board, they cancelled my ticket. One week after that I tried to travel to Cambodia, but the Cambodian authorities did not allow me to enter the country. They said I did not match their requirements. As Syrians we are allowed to enter Cambodia for one month, so when I asked what were the requirements they did not answer, and they deported me on the same day to Malaysia. Same plane, same day. That was on March 7th 2018, and from that time I have been stuck here.
I am a Syrian, I have a document that says I was born in Syria. People, governments, authorities, and even international human organisations are judging me because of this. I am paying the price for other’s war in our land, and this is the story of hundreds of millions of Syrians, who are rejected, unwanted, and experiencing racism. Even the airlines – European, American, Australian, Canadian will not board us, even if it’s a transit zone. So this is the situation.
Did Turkish Airlines ever give you a reason for why they did not board you?
I opened a file with them, I was having all the documents, a passport, two tickets – a single and a return, and they asked me first at the counter. While I was trying to board something strange happened. They asked me to throw away my bag first. I was going to fly from Kuala Lampur to Istanbul, and then Istanbul to Bogota, Colombia, with Turkish Airlines all the way. From Bogota to Ecuador it was through Avianca Airline. I avoided all the American, European, Australian and Canadian airports so as not to create suspicion.
I just wanted to reach there. Ecuador only needs an arrival visa. I called the Turkish Embassy and Turkish Airlines to check if they need any transit visa for their airports and they said no. After that I confirmed the ticket because I was 100% sure.
It cost me a fortune, almost all my money, so I could not afford to lose it. I checked with the Colombian authorities and they said I could use their airports for 24 hours. But the Turkish Airlines employee asked me to lose my bag first, because they don’t have any agreement with Avianca Airlines. So I threw the bag away, I went to the bathroom and gave it to the cleaner. Then the Turkish Airlines employee told me to wait for two hours. He ignored all my questions and would not make eye contact with me.
I heard them whisper with one of the other employees about me, laughing about me. Then after two hours, after I had thrown my bag, he said “Sorry, we can’t sell you a ticket.” So I opened a file with the airline and they emailed and said that they needed my documents to be complete. I replied to them that they are complete, and I showed them the passport and all the tickets. But they never came back to me.
How do you spend your days in the airport?
I don’t wake up like a normal person, it’s not a matter of day and night for me. When I am too exhausted I fall to sleep, then I may wake at 3 or 4 am. When I wake up it’s my day, Most of the time it’s 4 or 5 am. Nothing much. I have a kind of routine, but it’s boring. I check my mobile, and try to get a cup of coffee as I don’t have access to duty free, so even a cup of coffee is a bit of a challenge for me.
Normally I need to wake up at 7 and have my first cup of coffee because I depend on the stuff. Washing, wondering what I’m going to eat. Just trying to solve my temporary daily small problems to make things easier. There are things you can get used to, but there are some things you cannot. Like the announcement system noise. The sound you hear. With time it becomes torture, actually. It’s depressing. Mentally and physically because I cannot sleep.
Are you able to get enough to eat and drink?
The minimum. Asia Airlines provide me with three meals a day, but it’s the same meal three times a day for 108 days. It also becomes a kind of torture. It’s some rice and chicken. Every three or four days I order a MacDonald’s meal, just to change the mood, and to keep positive, and just to feel like a normal person who can have a meal outside whenever he wants. The airport staff are the ones who provide me with coffee and some meals – I give them some money of course.
They help me with washing my clothes. I give them my clothes and they take it home and bring it clean to me. They are my friends, they have become my friends, although they don’t speak English at all so we are often communicating through sign language. But they are here until 7pm, so whatever I need to do I need to do it before that. Because after I am totally alone.
What’s the next step you’ll take to try and get out of the airport? You have a petition on your Twitter page to Canada’s Minister of Immigration. Can you tell us about that?
This is the only solution I have. A group of Canadian volunteers, when they heard the story, they reached me. They did an amazing job, they are just normal people who care about humans. They are not decision-makers or VIP or government people. But they raised some money, got me a lawyer and a private sponsor association, and they submitted all the documents to the Canadian government. That was two months ago. We are waiting for their response and that of the Canadian Minister, Mr Ahmed Hussien, and I keep hoping it will not take a long time.
For the official people, even though my story was there on the media for the last two months, on big international channels, yet it surprised me that no official establishment, or embassy or immigration minister or public figure approached me to say “Listen, we are going to help you, tell us what you need from us.” Even the UNHCR people…that’s a different story...they are not very helpful.
It was 70 days since I heard from them, and I hear their response through the media only – their standard response. It surprised me they don’t have knowledge of the 1951 United Nations Convention on Refugees. Or if they have knowledge, maybe, they are choosing to ignore it. No outcome yet, only from the Canadian people. They are the only solution and they are the only hope I have.
A few days ago, you also applied to join the NASA Mission to Mars. Can you tell us why you did that?
Yeah. It just came to my mind, but people normally think I’m joking. But no, it’s the truth, I believe it. a matter of dark humour. It’s because cynical people are actually idealistic people who have been disappointed. That’s what I’m trying to do. I am disappointed in this world. The international system has failed me, I cannot understand it. They failed all Syrians. So many other humans all around the world as well.
For instance, me as a Syrian, I cannot seek asylum outside the country itself. In other words they are asking us first to smuggle ourselves into their countries, to be shut at the borders, to be drowned in the Mediterranean, or to walk for thousands of miles to be illegal first in their countries. And only then we may have a chance to seek asylum. This is ridiculous in itself, and they know that. They wrote the international law, but now they are going around it and ignoring it just to close the border in our faces.
With all this disappointment I really feel that I have had enough, and I am really ready to take that expedition to Mars. It will not be offered to me of course, but I would not hesitate about it. Or if someone offered me a very small island in any ocean, just a wooden cabin, no TV, no internet, no nothing, just fishing tools, I will live there. Because with what is happening in this world, with children being separated from their parents, there is no humanity.
Some people are benefitting from wars – it’s a weapon market, an experiment field for their new weapons – and other people are paying the price. No one is hearing the mothers crying for their kids, or the kids who cannot go to school and are dying on a daily basis.
No one cares about them. We have been used over the last few years, even by the neighbouring countries, like blackmail, like political tools, and they just lock us in detention camps like animals. They are begging for money on our behalf and we are getting nothing for it. So yes, I am ready to go to Mars. Or to any other planet.
Have you got a message for world leaders and the rest of the world?
Those leaders are so lucky I am not a decision maker. Or not a judge on the high court. If I was, I would ask so many of them to go to the high court for war crimes. They are all a part of this war. They are all a part of the bad behaviours, of the depression and of the sadness in this world. You cannot ask people not to be racist, or hate, or hide behind their keyboards with their fake profiles, when the leaders are calling immigrants animals or are separating kids from their families. You cannot ask people not to be racist when there are leaders who are doing that.
In 2012, 70 governments came together and established the Friends of the Syrian People group. Seventy governments are claiming they are friends with the Syrian people, yet I am here today, having faced what I have over the last eight years – not only me, but hundreds of thousands of Syrians. I am in the airport because of four of those governments who claim to be the Syrian peoples’ friends. I need them to stop being political for a second.
I need them to look at their kids playing on their toys and think about the Syrian kids. Don’t think with your political views, think as a Syrian for a second. You have the power for this war to stop. Bring yourselves together to work for a political solution. Stop trying to benefit, stop bombing our countries and sending troops. But they are not acting like a human, on both sides, on all sides. The only humans who care about humans are people living a normal life, but not the decision makers. Or almost none of the decision makers.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Al Bawaba News.
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