Hassan al-Kontar, a citizen of war-ravaged Syria, says he’s been stranded in a Malaysian airport for almost 40 days.
He fled Syria about a decade ago to avoid military service and fears he’ll be arrested or forced to fight for President Bashar Assad’s forces if he returns home.
After recently being refused entry into several countries, the 36-year-old has made a corner of Kuala Lumpur International Airport his temporary home. He’s been showering in public restrooms and relying on the generosity of airline and airport staff for food and supplies.
As news of his plight went viral this week, Kontar has described the deep desperation and frustration he feels about his situation — but also how the support of strangers around the world has kept his spirits buoyed.
“They brighten my soul, my mind, my heart for the rest of my life,” he told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation on Friday of people online who have started a GoFundMe campaign to support him. “This is humanity at the highest level.”
Kontar, a former insurance salesman, said he’s been in limbo since at least 2006, when he first left Syria to avoid serving in the military. He initially went to the United Arab Emirates illegally, he told CBC, where he worked under the table and lived in his car.
He said he eventually got a work permit, but it was revoked last year because of the Syrian civil war, which entered its eighth year in March. He was deported to Malaysia, a country that allows Syrian citizens to enter without a visa for up to 90 days.
Kontar said he overstayed his visit in Malaysia, where he spent months raising money to buy a plane ticket to Ecuador, a nation that also allows Syrian nationals to enter visa-free and where he has family.
He said, however, that he was turned away at the last minute from a Turkish Airlines flight to Ecuador. It’s unclear why the airline refused to board him. Turkish Airlines has not responded to HuffPost’s request for comment.
Kontar said he then attempted to travel to Cambodia but was turned away by immigration officials there. He flew back to Malaysia and tried to re-enter the country, but was also refused.
He has since been living in Terminal 2 of KLIA, surviving off his fast-dwindling savings and sharing the details of his ordeal through video diaries on Twitter.
“I’m desperate for help. I can’t live in this airport any longer, the uncertainty is driving me crazy,” he told the BBC. “It feels like my life hit a new low.”
Kontar says he hopes to find a lasting solution — one that will allow him to legally find a home where he can work and just “relax” for the first time in years.
“It’s exhausting. I’m tired from this. I cannot take it anymore,” he told CBC.
He stressed that returning to Syria is “out of the question” at this point.
“I am afraid of being deported to Syria, not because I’m a coward, not because I don’t know how to fight, but because I don’t believe in fighting,” he told Reuters. “I don’t want to be a killing machine, destroying my own home and harming my own people.”
In an effort to draw attention to his plight, Kontar has been tweeting at global news outlets and political leaders including French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He’s also attempted to reach out to actor Tom Hanks, who in 2004 played a man who was trapped in New York City’s John F. Kennedy Airport in the film “The Terminal.”
The movie was inspired by the true story of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, an Iranian refugee who lived in the departure lounge of Charles De Gaulle Airport in France for almost 18 years.
Several news outlets picked up Kontar’s story this week, attracting the attention of human rights groups and the Malaysian government.
The U.N. refugee agency in Malaysia told Reuters it had reached out to Kontar “and the authorities” this week, but said it could not comment on individual cases.
Malaysia’s deputy home minister told local news outlets that his ministry had been made aware of Kontar’s situation and was considering issuing him a “special pass” under the country’s Syrian refugee program, which would allow him to stay in the country temporarily. Kontar would have to be “vetted first,” the minister added.
The minister did not indicate when the vetting process might be initiated.
As The Guardian noted, there have been other stories in recent years of refugees from Syria being stranded in airports. In 2015, a refugee father and his four children were reportedly trapped in a Russian airport for over 50 days.
“It’s not only my problem,” Kontar told the paper this week of his troubles. “It’s the problem of hundreds of Syrian guys who feel they are hated, rejected, unwanted, weak, lonely.”