Hassan Al Kontar spent seven years as a man without a home and without a country before arriving in Canada in 2018 as a refugee after fleeing civil war in his home country of Syria.
Three years on, Al Kontar has found himself in the Peace region this summer, working with the Red Cross and assisting with the COVID-19 vaccine rollout at the clinic in Fort St. John.
It’s his fourth deployment with the agency since joining last year, working here and in White Rock, Victoria, and Abbotsford to help with testing, managing clinics, and monitoring patients after they’ve received their vaccine.
“This is my first time this far north,” Hassan said Wednesday evening during a welcome dinner hosted by the Fort St. John Multicultural Society. “It’s a great organization. Different sites, different people, different assignments, new cultures, new cities.”
Al Kontar made international news in 2018 after spending seven months in legal purgatory in a Malaysia airport, and another two months in immigration jail before the Canadian government eventually stepped in and granted him asylum.
Even then, it was a long, six-year journey to Malaysia. Al Kontar had been working in Dubai for five years when civil war broke out in Syria in 2011 following pro-democracy protests against President Bashar al-Assad.
“I was against the regime and because of my political opinions I had become wanted there,” he said.
“When I took a side and decided not to join the war that’s when the Syrian regime decided not to renew my passport, so I lost my work permit because you cannot renew your work permit without a valid passport. So all of a sudden I found myself illegal and homeless, jobless most of the time. It’s not a fun place to be jobless or homeless. It’s a desert.”
Al Kontar spent six years in the United Arab Emirates before authorities detained him in 2017 and planned to send him back to Syria. Al Kontar says he fought back and was sent to Malaysia, which had allowed Syrians to enter on an arrival visa.
But Al Kontar was not able to claim refugee status there, and he tried to pivot to Ecuador, a signatory the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention. A ticket to the country cost Al Kontar nearly all his money but the Turkish airline he was booked to fly with refused to board him.
Al Kontar then tried Cambodia a week later, the last country he says would allow Syrians entry on an arrival visa: “I just wanted out of the country,” he said.
But Cambodia did not allow him to enter, and the same plane that brought him there brought him back to Malaysia.
“Then that was my first day at the airport because Malaysia would not accept my entry again,” he says.
Back in Malaysia, Al Kontar languished in the international zone at the Kuala Lumpur airport for seven months, and was able to raise awareness of his plight using social media. A group of residents from Whistler eventually sponsored him as the Canadian government worked with Malaysian officials to bring him to the country.
Al Kontar has written about his experience in a book, Man at the Airport: How Social Media Save My Life. “It did not work at beginning but then all of a sudden it did,” he said.
Al Kontar says his drive north from Vancouver this summer “was the best thing ever," and is grateful for a new life in Canada.
"I have been exposed to different parts of the world, to the east and the west, and I have lived under different shades and forms of dictatorship for almost all of my life. I know what they think of, I know what they look like, what they sound like, what they are up to. I know what humans are for dictators, disposable assets," he said.
"It’s not about having the perfect country. Such country does not exist, it only exists in books. It’s about having values and rights and freedom. You have no idea because you have it and you take it for granted."
"What does it mean to have a constitution, or the right to believe or speak, the freedom of speech and belief? That’s the difference in Canada. You have a system where no one is above the law you can speak out your opinion at least," he said.
Al Kontar is in Fort St. John until the end of August. He doesn’t know where he’ll be deployed to next, but he wants to go wherever help is needed. He hopes he can one day work in a First Nation community as he feels he has a special connection to them as a refugee.
“I think we are similar, refugees, the newest comers to this land, with the original owners of this land. There’s a connection,” he said. “We both have been separated from the ones we love. We both have been kicked out of our lands, we both have been disconnected from our roots.”
To learn more and connect with Al Kontar, follow his Instagram page @kontar_81.
Email Managing Editor Matt Preprost at email@example.com