Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2, the city's low-cost carrier terminal, has all the trimmings you would expect from the home of low-cost airlines: none. The long corridors, lined with unwelcoming, utilitarian benches, lead to a cavernous immigration hall. The terminal is cold from the constant air-con, with loud, echoing acoustics and the relentless high-pitched jingle of the tannoy.
Amongst all of this, one Syrian man sits, alone and composed, waiting for his unexpected layover to finally come to an end.
I found Hassan Al-Kontar sitting beside the transfer counter, staring intently at his phone. Although his appearance may be shrinking – he has lost weight in the five months he has been trapped at the airport, a victim of diplomatic bureaucracy – his presence is only becoming larger as his story continues to be shared on social channels and in the media, with offers of help from around the world now including marriage proposals.
This increased celebrity has led to him hiding away most days, retreating underneath an escalator where he keeps his small number of belongings and a camping mattress, which he received from supporters after 50 days of sleeping on chairs or a blanket. Al-Kontar says he is tired and drained from telling the same story over and over, and has no desire to become a social media star. We spoke for an hour-and-a-half, and midway through our conversation he told me that his mouth and cheeks were sore from talking for so long. In the noisy, bustling arrivals lounge, he leads a solitary life.
Al-Kontar says that his problems began with the outbreak of the Syrian Civil War in 2011. He had emigrated to the UAE in 2006 and worked in insurance marketing, but was called back home for military service. "I refused, because there is no clear enemy here," said Al-Kontar. "That is not why I was born into this life. That is not my existence. I refused to be a part of the killing machine to destroy my own house. I refused, like thousands of Syrians."
Al-Kontar claims that his passport ran out in January of 2012. As he had not completed his military service, he was not able to apply for a new one, which resulted in his company terminating his contract. From then until January of 2017 he lived as a stateless person, trapped in the UAE; unable to get a job as an illegal citizen. He lived on the streets, sleeping in cars, gardens or wherever he could safely lay his head in temperatures of, at times, over 40 degrees. Eventually, says Al-Kontar, he was caught, but one of his ex-colleagues was able to renew his passport for two years and handed it to him in jail. The authorities wanted to send him back to Syria, but he was able to convince airport officials to send him to Malaysia instead.
Malaysia is one of only a few countries that grants Syrians visa-on-arrival, so he was able to stay in the country for three months. He was unable to find a job, however, and ended up overstaying for a month. Eventually, he received money from his family to pay his fine for overstaying his visa and was able to extend it for a further 14 days. During this fortnight, he tried to leave the country twice.
The first time was on a Turkish Airlines flight to Istanbul, eventually connecting to Ecuador, where Syrians can also gain visa-on-arrival. According to Al-Kontar, after making it to the departure gate he was stopped from boarding this flight and has not received a refund (Turkish Airlines did not respond to a request for comment on this claim). The second time was on an AirAsia flight to Cambodia. This venture was slightly more successful in that he made it to Cambodia. However, he was sent back to Malaysia by Cambodian officials who decided that he did not qualify for a visa.
On arrival back in KLIA2 on the 7th of March, he realised that if he went through immigration, he would be taken to a detention centre and deported to Syria, as Malaysia is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention, which protects the rights of refugees and outlines the obligation of the state to protect them. Thus, he never left the arrivals lounge and is still under the care of AirAsia, with the airline providing him the same three meals of chicken and rice every day.
Intelligent and articulate, Al-Kontar has versed himself in international human rights law during his long confinement. He feels that he has been failed by the very body set up to support displaced people, namely the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Al-Kontar claims that, after the initial media storm, the agency offered him a one month special pass for Malaysia, even after being blacklisted from the country for overstaying his previous visa. For Al-Kontar, however, this was not an adequate solution, as Malaysia is not a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention. "They are not in contact with me for almost 12 weeks, yet they are claiming they gave me so many options. They did not," said Al-Kontar.
In an emailed comment, a UNHCR spokesperson in Kuala Lumpur disputed this: "Both UNHCR and the Government of Malaysia have reached out to this individual on a number of occasions. He has been offered reasonable support and assistance to enter Malaysia, which would then allow UNHCR and others to consider his situation in more detail and to explore possible solutions for him. Clear offers of support and assistance in Malaysia have been communicated to the individual, and so far he has chosen to not accept. It appears that Malaysia is a place of transit for him and not a place where he wishes to remain. We understand that he is considering his options."
Al-Kontar hopes that a group of Canadian volunteers, who have petitioned their government to allow him to enter the country as a refugee and raised over $17,000 (£10,207) to sponsor him, will prove successful. However, there are no guarantees, and it can take up to 26 months to process an application. This process may be expedited, but Al-Kontar is painfully aware of his own privilege, compared to other refugees, in his somewhat gilded cage.
Many are worried that Al-Kontar's mental health is deteriorating, but he is resolute. Despite his situation, he remains upbeat, and has held onto his sense of humour, which he displays with the occasional witty post on social media. When I met him, he caught me off guard with his sarcasm, tricking me into believing that he had lost his key to the emergency exit door. In actual fact, he has only breathed fresh air once since being trapped – on day 122. Ever the optimist, he continues to sit opposite the emergency exit on the off-chance the doors will be flung open again.
"There are a lot of supporters, a lot of people who care. They send me a lot of messages," he said. "When I feel positive, I share online. It’'s better to be a source of happiness. I was thinking that every human has a breaking point. But no. If you are positive, there is no breaking point. If you have hope and can deliver what you are doing, you keep doing it. There is a lot of hope. Nelson Mandela was in a dark jail for 27 years and he went out with nothing but love."
There are no restaurants, coffee shops or even vending machines in this sad little section of KLIA2, and Al-Kontar must pay one of the trolley boys to bring him small treats from Starbucks or McDonald's, as he cannot always bring himself to eat the airline's food. "Friends with benefits," he calls them, as they charge their own extra tax on top. He has no friends without benefits at the airport. Ironically, the only types of stores in the arrivals lounge of KLIA2 are mobile phone shops, which he has had to make use of as his charger has been stolen multiple times. "I hope they needed it, I tell myself. I hope they really, really needed it," he said.
Obsessed with the notion of finally being legal, Al-Kontar told me that he is turning down offers of marriage from around the world. One example being Leeloo Rie, who wrote on Facebook, "Hey Handsome could we marry at this airport? If yes, I will be there before the winter! My proposal is serious."
"Yesterday was the last one, from Miami," said Al-Kontar. "There’s Australia, America, Canada, EU countries, even Tahiti, Hawaii and the Maldives… a lot! This is illegal itself to be married for visa purposes. All that I am asking for is to be legal. It's a fraud itself! But it's the only way they can help and they are offering some help, which is a great thing."
For now, Al-Kontar is waiting to hear back about his application to Canada, and hoping for any opportunity to leave to a country that is a signatory of the 1951 Refugee Convention. "I am not hopeless. This will end. I will get a place. I will be safe," he said. He has been inundated with offers of speaking engagements, book deals and documentaries; however, he is focusing on more simple pleasures right now. "I have a dream that I can have my coffee, take a nice shower, go to my work, meet a new group of friends, meet a lady, invite her for dinner, just live and be safe," he said.
Before leaving, I asked how people at home could help. "The people who care are powerless. The people who are in power, they are careless," he said. Acutely aware of his situation, he is a man of juxtapositions; optimistic yet dejected, patient yet anxious, buoyed by supporters from around the world, yet completely isolated.
As I left Hassan at the transfer counter and breezed through the immigration hall, I never felt more undeserving of the privilege to call myself British and take for granted all the benefits that entails. From where I was sitting on the bench with Hassan, I saw that basic human rights are dependent on the luck of the geographical location into which you are born.