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After Months Stuck Living In Airport, Syrian Finds Refuge Half A World Away

When Hassan Al Kontar posted his first videos to Twitter, slouched in a chair in Kuala Lumpur International Airport, his hair was clipped short. His beard was trimmed neatly, his sweatshirt freshly laundered. Only his eyes, for the moment, betrayed a certain creeping despair.

That was in March.

When Kontar finally arrived at his destination Monday night, landing in Vancouver, British Columbia, more than eight months later, the Syrian refugee looked like another man — skinny, bedraggled and half-hidden by a thicket of hair. It was understandable. After all, he had just spent most of those months stuck in a Malaysian airport's transit area and the remainder detained by local authorities.

Between those opening videos and his arrival in Canada, where he was greeted by the volunteers who had fought for his release, Kontar had little choice but to wait.

His three-month tourist visa to Malaysia had expired. He had already been ejected from the United Arab Emirates, where the former insurance manager had been working illegally after the country declined to renew his visa. And he said Turkish Airlines had turned him away without explanation from his planned flight to Ecuador.

He even got to Cambodia in a last-ditch effort — before he was placed right back on a return flight to Kuala Lumpur's airport. If he left the premises, he would risk deportation back to war-torn Syria, where he said he was wanted for dodging military conscription more than a decade ago.

"I am a human being and I don't consider it right to participate in war. It was not my decision," he explained to the BBC back in April, already weeks into his interminable wait. As a member of the Druze religious minority, he also risked becoming a target of one of the warring factions himself. "I'm not a killing machine and I don't want any part in destroying Syria."

So Kontar had time on his hands. A whole lot of it.

He took care of some potted plants. He crocheted. He turned the airport walkway into a makeshift treadmill. He walked a "pet" named Miss Crimson, who looked suspiciously like a stuffed animal. He borrowed a cart to perform the Kiki Challenge. He tried unsuccessfully to give himself a trim.

All the while, he ate extra airplane meals offered him by employees in the airport, accrued thousands of Twitter followers — and struggled to find a way to leave.

"I'm just a normal guy who finds himself all of a sudden in special circumstances, and who tried to stand up, asking for his rights," he explained in an August video, trying to be heard over the PA system in the background.

Eventually he found some allies in that struggle. But he found them in a rather unlikely place: Whistler, a small resort town in the Canadian province of British Columbia.

"It all seemed impossible: I'm a mom who lives in a little log cabin and he was living in an airport," Laurie Cooper, a media relations consultant, told The Guardian.

A volunteer with the nonprofit Canada Caring, she had seen Kontar posting about his plight on social media. And she, with the help of other Whistler residents and activists, pushed hard to obtain his release and sponsor him for refugee status in Canada.

"We have raised over $20,000 to sponsor him. He has a full time job offer at a hotel in Whistler. And he has close relatives living in Canada," Cooper said in an urgent statement released in October, just days after Malaysian officials arrested Kontar for loitering without a boarding pass and threatened him with deportation. "We cannot afford to wait any longer, the risk is too great."

Kontar spent nearly two months in detention before the "Canadian government and a lawyer hired by Cooper quietly negotiated his release," according to the CBC. And when he finally touched down Monday in Vancouver, Cooper was waiting with a hug.

"I just feel so grateful that things worked out and that he's here and that he's safe," Cooper told reporters, as Kontar fought back tears beside her. "I never doubted for a moment that we would get him here."

Still, in nearly every video Kontar posted during his long wait, he sought to make the point that while his situation was odd, it was by no means unique. More than 5.6 million people have fled Syria since violence erupted there in 2011, according to the United Nations. And, as he observed in his first video from the airport, Syrian refugees everywhere feel "lonely, weak, unwanted, rejected."

More than eight months later, in transit at last, Kontar posted his latest video, this time from a layover in Taiwan. And after thanking those who offered him support, he returned to the topic of his fellow Syrians.

"Let's keep the prayer for those who still need it the most — in refugee camps and detention camps all over the world," Kontar said, signing off. "I hope they will be safe and legal as soon as possible, too."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.