The Man At The Airport: Hassan Al Kontar’s Story of Seeking Refuge in Canada

Hassan Al Kontar © Image Courtesy of Kontar

By Allie Murray

When civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, Hassan Al Kontar was living and working in the United Arab Emirates. After his visa expired and he refused to return to Syria due to mandatory military service, Kontar was deported to Malaysia, one of the only places at the time that would allow Syrians to enter without a visa. Upon arriving in Malaysia, Kontar had nowhere to go and ended up living in a Malaysian detention centre for two months and inside the Malaysia airport for seven months.

Looking for a way to freedom, Kontar took to social media to share his story. Sharing daily video diaries on Twitter, Kontar’s story made its way to three Canadians living in British Columbia, who worked with the Canadian government and the BC Muslim Association to sponsor Kontar and grant him permanent residency in Canada.

Now, some five years after arriving in B.C., Kontar has become a Canadian citizen.

“Being a refugee is something I never chose, however, no matter where I go, no matter how much success I may achieve in the future, I will always be a former refugee,” Kontar shared. “Instead of fighting it, I tried to make my peace with it, never forgot my roots, and kept reminding the world about the refugee crisis.”

To do so, Kontar released a book, Man At The Airport: How Social Media Saved My Life – One Syrian’s Story, to not only share his own harrowing story of seeking refuge but to show the power of social media and how he managed to create a new life for himself with the help of just his cellphone.

hassan al kontar
© Image Courtesy of Kontar

“Social media is a tool, and it’s up to us how to use it,” Kontar explained. “It could be a weapon of mass destruction, or a life-saver. It was, for me, a desperate solution. The window to tell my story. My strategy while using it was just to be myself.”

Now, living in Vancouver, Kontar works with the B.C. and Yukon branch of the Canadian Red Cross as a Case Manager, where he works with refugees as they arrive in Canada. It’s his dream to further this career to work with the Red Cross directly in refugee camps.

It has been 15 years since Kontar has returned home to As Suwayda, Syria. When he received his Canadian citizenship in January 2023, Kontar shared the bittersweet moment on Twitter, an homage to his humble beginnings in the Malaysia airport where he would share daily videos.

“This is a day that cost me a father, a destroyed homeland, prison, persecution, tears, blood, & fifteen years of being away from my loved ones,” he wrote. “Wishing the same for every oppressed freedom fighter. Wishing the same for every refugee in refugee camps. Today is a day like no other.”

Dawning his Canadian gear and a large Canadian flag, he remembers the people left behind.

“Syria is one the oldest civilizations on earth,” he said. “Its people are proud people, who just need a little help to live again.”

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