Hassan Al Kontar-Syrian national stuck at KLIA2- 160 days & counting

This post is being published live from Yangon, Myanmar. We complain on every small thing that disrupts our daily life- traffic jam, flight delays, bad weather and so on. But there’re lot worse one can face if their fate plays games with them. You might have watched the movie “The Terminal” where Tom Hanks was no longer admissible into his destination country, because the country that issued him the passport ceased to exist due to a civil war and takeover. Tom Hanks manages to work and live inside the airport for long term, till his finally becomes admissible. At present one individual is living a similar life stuck within the arrival zone of Kuala Lumpur’s KLIA2. His name is Hassan Al Kontar and he is a Syrian national with an expired passport and no country on earth wants him in.
Hassan Al Kontar had a very successful life as an insurance marketing professional in UAE. He had a Syrian passport, UAE work permit and a good job like everyone else. But everything changed abruptly in 2011. The ISIS came to prominence all of a sudden and Syria plunged into a war. Millions died and cities were ruined. Government army faced shortage of soldiers to fight and it reached out to Syrian nationals settled abroad to return home and enlist. Joining the war means giving up all comforts of life and facing a very high risk of getting killed in the battle. It wasn’t an exciting proposition to many. Hassan also felt war is not the right way out- it only serves vested interests of select people and doesn’t do any good to majority of the public. Hassan refused his government’s call to come home n fight. Naturally this angered Syrian government. When his passport came up for renewal, the renewal was rejected, triggering a crisis and suddenly making Hassan Al Kontar an illegal resident in UAE. Without a valid passport his work permit couldn’t be renewed and he couldn’t live, travel, work anywhere. Hassan did manage to continue his stay in UAE for several years without valid papers but eventually local authorities caught up with him. They wanted to send him home to Syria but Hassan pleaded not to be sent home- his own country would definitely arrest him for not joining army and may even execute him for treason. Dubai authorities sent him to Malaysia, as Malaysia gives visa on arrival to Syrian nationals for 30 days for tourism purposes. After this time was up, Hassan planned his travel to Ecuador- another country that gives visa on arrival to Syrians- he carefully selected a route with Turkish Air- transit via Istanbul and Bogota Columbia, carefully avoiding major transit hubs where he could face scrutiny or even arrest. Unfortunately Turkish air refused to board him (reason not explained), didn’t refund his money and left him in a limbo. He made an attempt to visit Cambodia- one last country that would give visa on arrival to Syrians on an AirAsia flight. Unfortunately he wasn’t admitted into Cambodia either and was sent back to Kuala Lumpur. Upon arrival he wasn’t admitted back to Malaysia (you can't use tourist visa provision to stay forever) and with nowhere else to go, he is stuck in arrival zone of KLIA2.

(Update: Just learnt that he does have an active and valid passport right now- it was temporarily renewed for 2 years and would expire again in Jan 2019)

Arrival zone is where people spend minimum time- passengers get off the plane and then either go to immigration or to transit area. Because of this arrival zone doesn’t have any facilities like food court and so on. Hassan is confined to this small area in KLIA2. When I tried to meet him I had some tough time locating him. I cleared security and went to transit area- but couldn’t find him anywhere. After some searching, message exchange realized that we are in two different areas. Because there was enough time for my flight, security allowed me to go back to arrival area and that was how I could meet him last week.

I spent couple of hours with him interacting- unfortunately there was very little I could do to help. 

What others did?
Different Syrian nationals who were all called back to join army had different escape plans- some managed to marry people of other countries and through that get citizenship of that country. Those who had lots of money bought their way through or went to countries that offered citizenship to whoever invests large sums of money. (Many countries readily offer citizenship if you are rich and promise to invest lots of money- remember Mehul Choksi?)Many resigned to their fate and joined the war- hopefully most of them are still alive. Others managed to escape to various countries (mainly in Europe) and seek asylum or refugee status there, few might still be managing to live and work illegally in various countries constantly evading arrest.

It is eternally boring to spend time in airport. Add to that an uncertain future it is very frustrating and depressing. But Hassan Al Kontar is able to put forward a brave face, deal with his day one day at a time. He does various little things to keep himself busy and sane, posts his activities on facebook and twitter, gets lots of love and support from online community. He has found himself some space under the escalator, which he occasionally shares with other passengers who get stuck at airport- AirAsia has been kind to provide him 3 meals a day- he was even kind to offer it to me saying he is not hungry-I had to decline has I am vegetarian, I had carried my own food and I had access to food counter in transit area. We get frustrated and put up angry facebook posts if our flight gets delayed by a few hours. Here, Haasan Al Kontar has already spent 160+ days in arrival area of KLIA2 and may have to spend many more till some country accepts him and his papers get ready. I have another transit through KLIA2 in October- I hope Hassan Al Kontar gets to fly out much before that.

Why do people get stuck in airports?
Most of us- as tourists, get visa to a country, go there, finish our tour and come back home. But travel is not always that simple for everyone. Travelers are often denied entry and deported from a destination- for various reasons at the discretion of immigration officials- they may fear a person may not return on time, take up job and become an illegal worker, some countries do not like certain nationalities irrespective of credentials of the individual and so on. Add to this, there're many individuals- mostly from developing countries, knowingly enter a developed country with a tourist visa but with intentions of never returning- this is the main reason why most developed countries have very strict visa process for those from developing countries. If a deported person has return ticket with the same airline then it is easier to send him back home, but at times things get complicated- a traveler may have bought one way ticket, or return/onward ticket with a different airline is now useless as he is unable to enter the destination country, there could be life threatening scenario back home so an individual may just refuse to go back, a missing/expired/faulty documentation/passport may complicate the process and so on. Once you’re deported from a country, many other countries get suspicious/extra careful and may deny entry to you just to be on safer side. Those who have the money or strong consular support from their home countries often manage to get through but at times people get stuck- they don’t have money to buy a ticket or airline refuses to fly them fearing penalties, or other reasons. Some airlines may not be flying to passenger's home country- like Air Asia flies from Malaysia to Cambodia but not to Syria-so they can't always fly a passenger to his/her home country. It is a bad situation to be in but happens with travelers all the time around the world- just the level of seriousness varies. Some powerful countries like United States or Israel would do whatever it takes- including military action- to get their citizen back home, but many poorer, less powerful countries either don’t care or can’t afford to do much if their citizens get struck abroad. Hassan Al Kontar is facing one of such extreme conditions- his home country won’t renew his passport, if he goes back he may be arrested or killed for disobeying government order to join army, without a valid passport and because of his nationality no country in the world wants him in.

What he needs immediately?
Hassan is not able to read for long-his eyes are hurting- he needs an eye check-up and post that may be a fresh pair of specs. But there’s no such provision in the arrival area (or anywhere in the airport) and he isn’t allowed to go out. If some eye surgeon reading this can carry a testing kit while transiting through KLIA2, we can arrange a new specs for him after we get the specifications. Or at least if Malaysia authorities can give him a day’s transit visa to go to city and get an eye test done it will be great.

Way out
Hassan Kontar’s most optimal hope is that Canada accepts him. It is a slow process- citizenship decisions aren’t decided in a hurry, so he is hoping for some good news soon. Unless some country on earth accepts him and gives an opportunity to live a normal life, he will be stuck within the arrival zone of KLIA2

How you can help Hassan Al Kontar?
At this moment Hassan Al Kontar doesn’t need money or materials- I asked him if I can get him anything- books or anything else- he politely refused, stating he has everything he needs. I think below is what you can do to help:
1 Spread the message- share this post, share this The Hindu news article by Kiruba or share Hassan Al Kontar's facebook or twitter updates- more people come to know of him, higher the probability someone with right access, authority might be able to come forward and help him get entry into a country or speed up the process. Many have drawn attention of Tom Hanks, actor who played a similar role in The Terminal- but no luck as of now.
2. Be alert to possible scams- Hassan told me someone created a fake account in his name and raised funds and pocketed all of them. Be extra careful for such possibilities- do not blindly trust anything and donate-cross check if the call is genuine and if it will reach right people.
3. Do not try to use his situation for your advantage- Hassan told me many brand owners offered him their goods, asking that he should promote it on his accounts. He wants to get out of the airport soon and be able to live like any normal person asap- he isn’t looking to monetize his situation or get extra publicity. Offering him to send some stuff in exchange for promotional activities would be an insult. Don’t do it.
4. There’re many online petitions created in support of Hassan Al Kontar’s cause- like this change.org one- you may sign it and share it- hopefully it contributes to a favorable result.
5. Few Canadian friends are pursuing his case for a Canadian citizenship- if you’re in a position to help/contribute may be you can join them and help speed up the process or help them make a stronger case
6. If you think you can help him get citizenship of your country, do the needful.
7. Don't ask him for his story- it won't be fun for him to repeat it to everyone again and again. Do your reading, ask only specific questions if any.

Hassan's family lives back in Syria and he interacts with them occasionally via internet. I asked if they can come to Kuala Lumpur to visit him- but it is a complicated process- they need to first travel from Syria to Lebanon-every step is filled with danger from war, kidnapping, air strikes etc- and from Lebanon they need to fly to Malaysia- an expensive trip. (Beirut to Kuala Lumpur return ticket costs around 500 USD)

Hassan Al Kontar also faces life threat from some elements, who believe he has insulted Islam, evading his responsibility to fight for Islam and so on. Hopefully they won’t be able to cause any harm.
Below is a info-graphic that summarizes his situation (source- his twitter account)
Hassan said he got lots of love, messages and friend requests from many Indians after the last week’s newspaper article. He is overwhelmed by the love and is unable to reply to each of them individually. He has invites to talk at TedX and various other opportunities, but unless is papers get in order, he is unable to go anywhere or do anything.  He has watched Padmavat (i) and many other Bollywood movies and was curious to know more about India. I wish him strength and bright future, soon.
What Malaysian authorities can do:
I have no authority in this matter but as a suggestion, at the minimum I think they should consider giving him access to transit area in KLIA2- Transit area has a movie lounge, food court, better toilets and more space.

Will be good if he can be escorted to town for an eye check-up and new glasses.

Though Indian passport isn't one of the strongest one, many times I feel we are far better off compared to many other countries. I am hoping Hassan gets a way out real fast.

More details- Wikipedia page * Hassan's twitter account

13 comments:

  1. Absolutely agonizing. Hope he gets out soon.

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  2. I am sure, this was your one of the most memorable encounters with anyone on your travels!
    I seriously thin he gets out of the situation soon. Can't say anything more.

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  3. I read about him in The Hindu and so appreciated his sense of humor, considering the condition he is in at. Glad to know you met him and are doing your best to help him out. Hope he gets the help he needs soon.

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  4. Oh, gosh! 160 days is no joke.
    And the uncertainity is even worse, I guess.

    Let's hope somebody somewhere will have an idea to make things better for him.

    Will share this, Shrinidhi.

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  5. You have to understand you are as good as your nation ,you have to face the consequences of your country's actions.All is not what is painted by the international community.

    If you do a deeper analysis ,perhaps the syrians are one of the most accommodated of all wars in recent years.Maybe if he had woken up from slumber earlier when his passport was not renewed he would have had better options to think about and not stay on illegally in UAE

    I think it is naive to to suggest to people to think about getting citizenship for him,it does not work through referrals or through the word of mouth.

    And i am 100 % sure that he was not the lone syrian working in UAE whose passport was not renewed ,by brushing things under the carpet magic wont happen ,perhaps if he had applied earlier things would not have been so bad.

    And last but not the least when you are from a war torn country ,you should accept the first country which offers you a safe haven ,not try to pick and choose the best country that you want to go to ,it doesnt work that way ,which is what most people want to do .

    And i must say his choice of options of travel has been very poor by the best standards ,when you are in a situation like this you have to carefully think about the repercussions and do some basic research especially on the malaysian tourist visa ,and yes you can do it and tread carefully if you do some basic due diligence.


    Things could have been vastly different if he had been more careful ,doing some very basic homework and ofcourse everything legally only.

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    Replies
    1. We all live with a hope that tomorrow will be better than today. Life would have been a lot simpler if we know that today is the best day and next 10 days will be much worse.. Anyway whatever has happened has happened- I don't have the experience and authority to say he or someone should have done things differently. let us wish for a better tomorrow

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    2. Also let us take example of Kerala floods- very easy to say people should have moved to safer places earlier and don't wait till they get stranded- but the severity of rain and flood wasn't anticipated by many hence they hoped it won't be serious enough.. just my thoughts

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  6. That's so great of you to take out time, meet him personally and share his story. Its so strange that we crib and complain about luxuries of life and this guy has been living under an elevator and only support he has is "Hope" I really really hope that he is able to lead a normal life again.

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