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Former Syrian refugee stuck in an airport for 7 months finds a new side of Canada in B.C.’s north

hassan al kontar with red cross work badge

A former Syrian refugee — who achieved a certain amount of international recognition after being stranded in a Malaysian airport for months — says traveling to northern B.C. for a temporary job assignment has broadened his Canadian experience.

Hassan Al Kontar, 40, has been working as an emergency health worker with the Red Cross in Fort St. John since early July — after living 2½ years in the Lower Mainland working with Vancouver’s Red Cross.

Now a Canadian permanent resident, the refugee from Syria’s civil war made international headlines in 2018 when he was stranded in Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur International Airport for nearly seven months.

He didn’t have the paperwork to remain in the country, did not want to return to Syria, and was not welcome elsewhere — until November 2018 when a sponsor from Whistler, B.C., helped him find asylum in Canada.

Al Kontar says coming to Fort St. John and helping with COVID-19 vaccinations in the small community was one of the best decisions he’s ever made.

“It’s the first time I got this far north, and it’s amazing — I drove all the way from Vancouver to Fort St. John,” he told Carolina de Ryk, the host of CBC’s Daybreak North.

“It’s open wide, flat Greenland here in the north, while in Vancouver we have the city — it [Fort St. John] is a narrow, small street [city],” he went on.

Al Kontar has worked since 2006 as a marketing insurance manager in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Still, his immigration status was put into limbo in 2011 after losing his work permit due to the Syrian war.

He stayed in the UAE as an illegal immigrant — until he was caught by local authorities in 2017 and deported to Malaysia, a country that accepts Syrians without visas.

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But the Malaysian government only granted Al Kontar a three-month tourist visa. He tried to fly to other countries but was rejected and sent back to Kuala Lumpur.

As a refugee stuck at the airport with nowhere to go, Al Kontar went on social media to share his personal story.

“I cannot go back to Syria … for my political views,” he said. “I did not complain. I explained. I did not cry. I just tried to show people that Syrians … are still educated, skilled people who love life and who want to be in a place with their basic human rights, a place where they can call home, a place where they will be permanently safe and legal, where they can work and prove themselves,” he said at the time.

Al Kontar says Canada isn’t a perfect country but living here for the last two years is a dream come true.

“I lived under different forms and shapes of dictatorship — I’m 40 years [old], and I never voted in my life.

“It’s not about having the best country. It’s about having a country where they have a system where no one is above the law, where you have value as a human being, where you have rights and voice, where you have the freedom to believe and speak.

“What I have here is the impossible dreams for millions around the world, and that’s why I enjoy every minute [in Canada],” he said.

Al Kontar will return to the Lower Mainland in late August after completing his Fort St. John assignment.

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