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Syrian stranded at airport for months is now 'living the dream' in Canada

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Image: Laurie Cooper and Hassan Al Kontar after he arrived in Vancouver
@ Copyright :
Ben Nelms
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WHISTLER, British Columbia — Hassan al Kontar spent seven months watching the planes come and go while stranded at Kuala Lumpur's airport.

No country was willing to accept him, so al Kontar, a onetime marketing manager from Syria, was forced to survive on donated airline meals and sleep on the floor of a terminal.

But sitting on a couch in a cabin house in a bustling skiing community in western Canada, al Kontar said his new reality could not be further away from where he was barely two months ago — thanks to the efforts of complete strangers.

"I was asking for safety, I got it in Canada. I was asking for hope, I got it in Canada. I was asking for freedom, I got it in Canada," al Kontar told NBC News, his soft voice only interrupted by the cozy crackling from a fireplace. It's a dramatic change from the airport announcement chimes that became the soundtrack to his life in the Malaysian capital.

"I am living the dream," he added.

Al Kontar, 37, garnered headlines worldwide last year after he started documenting his life through his social media accounts.

In April, a group of Canadians headed by former journalist Laurie Cooper heard about his ordeal and decided to help. They applied to sponsor al Kontar through Canada's immigration system.

But in October, Malaysian authoritiesarrested him citing security concerns. Al Kontar spent 58 days in a small cell at a detention facility, and feared being deported back to Syria.

"We didn't know if he was dead or alive," said Cooper, who had been in regular contact with al Kontar at the airport until his arrest. "He went into a black hole."

However, his asylum application was expedited by Canadian officials and he was eventually granted refugee status. On Nov. 26, al Kontar was transferred from the detention center back to the airport — this time,with a one-way ticket to Vancouver.

Laurie Cooper greets Hassan Al Kontar after the Syrian refugee from Kuala Lumpur to Vancouver on Nov. 26.
Laurie Cooper greets Hassan Al Kontar after the Syrian refugee from Kuala Lumpur to Vancouver on Nov. 26.Ben Nelms

"It just felt like my son was coming home," said Cooper, 58, who worked tirelessly to bring al Kontar to Canada.

He now finds himself enjoying a very different life in a winter resort town nearly 8,000 miles away from Kuala Lumpur.

He lives with Cooper, her husband and two children in their Whistler home.

"I feel I belong here somehow," al Kontar said while petting one of the family's cats. "The people, especially here in Whistler, they are overwhelming. I never received a single negative look. They keep giving me hugs."

Al Kontar says he is considering writing a book about his saga.

Before Syria's civil war broke out in 2011, al Kontar worked in the insurance industry in the United Arab Emirates. He was later summoned for military service, but al Kontar says his refusal to return meant the Syrian embassy in the UAE declined to renew his passport in 2012. That meant his work permit couldn't be renewed, so al Kontar lost his job and remained in the UAE.

Al Kontar was apprehended by UAE authorities in 2017. He was eventually sent to Malaysia — one of the few countries to accept Syrian citizens without a visa for up to 90 days.

After his attempts to obtain a permanent visa there failed, he decided to go to Ecuador, another country that accepts Syrians without a visa. But the airline refused to let him fly at the last minute.

He later tried to travel to Cambodia, but was sent back to the airport in Kuala Lumpur in early March. He found himself in limbo there until late last year.

Al Kontar has not seen his family members in Syria since 2008 and had to watch his brother's wedding via Skype while stranded in Malaysia.

Hassan al Kontar admits he is not the biggest fan of Canadian food, but said that he enjoyed his first Christmas in the country.
Hassan al Kontar admits he is not the biggest fan of Canadian food, but said that he enjoyed his first Christmas in the country.Yuliya Talmazan

He has already been approached by documentary filmmakers, and if Hollywood comes calling, al Kontar says he's prepared to take up acting. "That would be awesome," he said. "If it's about who is the character and who is this person, I think it should be me. I can play me. But maybe George Clooney can, too. We look similar."

He has traveled to Toronto to give a talk at a school about the Syrian war and refugee crisis and bring awareness to a project that employs refugee women.

But al Kontar says he's looking for a mission to take on.

"I thought Canada would be the end of the story, but it's not," he said. "It's just a new beginning for something bigger."

He added, "I feel that I am safe as an individual now, but what about other refugees?"

Canada is one of the few nations that has embraced Syrians fleeing their war-torn country. More than 60,000 Syrian refugees have resettled in Canada since 2015 — including almost 28,000 who have been privately sponsored like al Kontar.

Cooper has helped to bring 20 other refugees to the country.

"My son is 25, and I just think that if he was in a situation like this and I was not able to help, I hope someone else would step up," Cooper said. "I just see each person as an individual, and that they are suffering or are afraid."

Al Kontar calls Cooper and the two others who formally sponsored him to come to Canada his "Three Musketeers."

"There is a type of people who have options in their lives, and yet they choose to make a difference and save lives," he said. "That's Laurie and her friends. They are the face of hope for me. People describe hope as the light at the end of a dark tunnel, but for me, it has a face now."