Last August I wrote a story for VICE about the multiple marriage proposals Syrian refugee Hassan Al-Kontar received while trapped in the departure lounge of Kuala Lumpur International Airport Two.
The title, about Al-Kontar's marriage proposals, was intended to make his story go viral. Yet, once it did, I felt a foreboding sense of responsibility. The story worked as a call to action, with the number of signatures on an online petition to grant Al-Kontar asylum in Canada skyrocketing. It also highlighted how international human rights law is failing many refugees, not only Al-Kontar.
However, it was heartbreaking to see the barrage of abuse and trolling he received. "He is 100 percent naturally stupid," one commentator wrote in Arabic, as debate swirled over his morality and his decision not to accept any marriage proposals. Twitter users also discussed his "cowardliness" for not fighting in the war and accused him of being a member of Isis, trying to enter Canada.
I kept in touch with Al-Kontar during his time at the airport. One night, I didn’t receive a reply to my message. Later on, news started filtering through that he had been arrested by Malaysian authorities. He was not heard from again for two months.
"I have been in more articles than I ever wanted, and I have been written about in languages that I did not know existed," he says now from his new home in Whistler, Canada, where he was granted asylum in November of 2018. "I still remember my first reaction when people would send me a photo or link to one of these. 'Is this Valyrian or Klingon?' I would wonder."
As Al-Kontar's story continued to be shared, he fielded even more marriage proposals from around the world. "The law sees it as fraud, an illegal act to marry someone just to get into the country. All I was asking for was a legal solution," he says. "I did not reject the offers because I didn’t want to be married. I rejected them because it was the wrong solution and it would have caused both of us legal problems."
Unfortunately, some of Al-Kontar's admirers did not deal with rejection gracefully.
"You know!! You had an opportunity that you rejected, I think you are enjoying the attention that you have never ever received in your entire life," said one potential paramour from America, after she offered what she referred to as his only real solution: to marry her. "The hell I can't marry you!! I work for a Congressman, and I can marry whomever I want," said another American suitor.
"You can marry whomever you want, it's your personal freedom, but bringing your Syrian husband to the USA is an entirely different matter. It's not about your personal freedom anymore, it is the law. I am afraid you will need to move in and live with me at the airport if you decide to proceed," replied Al-Kontar.
"That was my answer," he says, "but what I was really thinking was that a woman who claims she is working for a Congressman should know better than that. There is a travel ban. Syrians can't enter the USA. Not as students, tourists, workers, investors or spouses. It sounds silly, I know, but it's the truth, as simple as it sounds."
Al-Kontar remembers that he felt shy answering offers of marriage, and admits that speaking to women is not one of his strengths. "Most of the proposals came from the USA. For me, that was proof that it's a land full of good people who want to help, but don't know how," he says. "And some of the American women who wrote to me had a sense of humour. I am a 37-year-old single man and, unfortunately, I can claim that I haven't ever been in love before. So sad, I know. When I was living at the airport, I found a different kind of love. I fell in love with what I was doing and what I believed in."
After Hassan's story went viral, he became something of a celebrity at the airport, with travellers hunting him down to take photos with him or videos of him, sometimes without his permission. These would then be dutifully uploaded to social media with a catchy hashtag and a summary of his predicament – a form of disaster tourism in action. He ended up hiding behind a staircase during the daytime, comparing his situation to that of an animal at the zoo.
The intense media attention, supporters visiting the airport, a surge in Al-Kontar's online following and social media activism held the Malaysian government accountable and drove Canadian authorities to fever pitch. This also, however, may have eventually led to Al-Kontar's arrest and removal to a Malaysian detention camp.
"It was very hard. Very hard. I spent 58 days in a closed room, five by six metres, most of the time with 40 persons. For the first 20 days, I laid my back to the wall to sleep, as there was no space," he says. "There was an open bathroom with cold water. The only clothes we had were the clothes we were wearing, so I was washing them in cold water and wearing them so they would dry on me. It was freezing all the time. It was 24 hours of lights and no cup of coffee for 58 days."
"Some people with me were from Bangladesh, India or Pakistan, but there was one Arabic guy, who was from Morocco, with me for about a month. I was trying to establish any type of conversation with him to pass the time. I discovered that he was working as a pizza chef in a restaurant in Malaysia, so we ended up speaking about how to make pizza from scratch for the whole month. He was teaching me the recipe all the time and we were hungry, all the time."
Although Malaysian authorities initially stated that they may deport Al-Kontar to Syria, they eventually agreed to abide by international law "on the basis of concern and humanity".
Al-Kontar is now safe, and legally living in Canada, with fans and followers still sliding into his DMs with interesting propositions – but he says he feels like the loneliest man in the world. "People always compared me to the movie The Terminal. My answer in early media interviews was that at least Tom Hanks had Catherine Zeta-Jones."