Hassan Al Kontar is a former Syrian refugee who spent seven months stranded in Kuala Lumpur International Airport. His memoir, Man at the Airport, is being published this month.
“Why did you apply to live in Canada and not the USA?” This was one of the many questions the U.S. Homeland Security officer asked me when I unexpectedly found myself on American soil in March.
I had ended up there by mistake, after taking a series of wrong turns trying to get to a parking lot on the Canadian side on my first day of deployment to assist border officials as an emergency care worker for the Red Cross – one of the greatest non-profit humanitarian organizations in the world. They are still operating in my home country of Syria as the Red Crescent, and the situation there would be much bleaker without them.
The irony of my assignment was not lost on me. There was a time not so long ago where all I wanted to do was cross a border – any border – and immigration officers were my enemy.
For seven months in 2018, I was trapped in the airport in Kuala Lumpur. I did not want to participate in the conflict in Syria, and so I had lived illegally in the United Arab Emirates to avoid fighting my countrymen – but, desperate to find a country that would allow me to stay and work, I left for Malaysia on a tourist visa. When that expired, I planned to go to Cambodia, but when officials refused to admit me, and I wasn’t allowed back into Malaysia, the airport became my home. No other country in the world would accept a Syrian without a work permit.
I remember seeing the AirAsia logo printed on the side of their planes – Now Everyone Can Fly – knowing it wasn’t true for me.
Fortunately, I was able to launch a social-media campaign that eventually led Canada to grant me asylum. But now, not even three years later, here I was, a permanent resident of Canada, headed to the border to work side by side with immigration officers – and still confounded by them. I had had no choice but to cross after missing the turn into the parking lot – I couldn’t just turn around – and for that, I was interrogated for more than two hours, and then forced to quarantine for 14 days.
I have a lot of experience when it comes to interrogations. I know how to avoid provoking authorities and how to de-escalate situations. But I have never been very good at keeping my mouth shut when I feel strongly about something. Suddenly, I realized I wasn’t Hassan, the stranded Syrian refugee seeking asylum; I was Hassan, a former refugee who now had a place to call home.
So I answered the Homeland Security officer’s question honestly.
“Sir, refugees don’t have the privilege of choosing,” I told him. “But if we did, no refugee would choose any other country in this world over Canada. While you in USA had a four-year travel ban for Syrians, Canada has been accepting us since 2015.”
I could have added that there are more than 190 countries in this world, and 145 of them have signed the 1951 Refugee Convention. But only a few are actually honouring their signature. The rest are just ignoring it, acting like it doesn’t exist.
I could have added that the first Syrian refugees fled 10 years ago, and that more than six million others have followed them out since, half of them children. Everyone sees the pictures, everyone hears the stories, but not everyone acts. Most countries just pledge money to keep the camps going; Britain recently announced it actually planned on reducing its contribution by a third. Turkey and Lebanon, where most of the refugees are housed, use these camps for political leverage, threatening to open their borders if their demands are not met.
I could have added that only a few countries – including Germany, New Zealand and Canada – actually help people escape their misery and resume their lives. Others, especially Australia, are jailing, deporting and locking up asylum seekers. Australia signed the UN refugee convention in 1954, yet they have been detaining asylum seekers on the island of Nauru for seven years now, without a hearing or access to a medical care, fresh water or electricity. Other countries are separating children from their parents. But Canada, which created the world’s first private sponsorship program in 1978 to allow citizens to come together to sponsor a refugee and directly save lives, launched the #WelcomeRefugees initiative, resettling more than 25,000 people in Canada in 10 days. Whoever came up with the campaign should be thanked forever.
Canada has earned its reputation when it comes to human rights and helping refugees, and those who make it here are the luckiest. Stories like mine or that of Rahaf al-Qunun, who also used social media to escape an airport trap and who was also welcomed by Canada, reinforce that reputation, securing Canada a special place in the hearts of the Arab world. For Syrians raised in a dictatorship, Canada is not just a country: It’s a feeling of being permanently safe and protected, of having value as a human being, of having rights. It is not a perfect country – such a thing only exists in books – but it is a place where no one is above the law and people who commit crimes are held accountable. Individuals and their opinions matter, free speech is protected and the judiciary is independent.
Sure, my fellow former refugees have faced some problems integrating into a new country, a new culture and a different language. Sure, many of us – especially our elders – feel nostalgic and miss our homes. But Syrians are tough. Life taught us resilience long before the war; when we have a problem, we face it and try to solve it. In Canada, we wake up every morning knowing we are safe, knowing that our kids can attend school, that we have jobs, and that we have the opportunity to make our dreams come true. And so we give back to the society that welcomed us, that gave us freedom, with our skills, our education, our culture, our work.
When it comes to participating in democracy, of course, I am still a novice. Every national debate is a teachable moment, and we Syrians depend on our Canadians friends to instruct us as we ask, listen and observe. We want to pass our knowledge along to people back home, to help them build a better country in the future, too. So when Canada decides to welcome refugees, Canadians don’t just help us directly – they also help our countries of origin.
During the 14 days of quarantine after my impromptu visit to the U.S., I had a lot of time to think about what Canada means to me. Syria is where I was born and raised. It is the land of my ancestors, history, memories, family, friends and farm. I know our house there, the colour of its walls, where the pictures are hung, the titles of the books in the library. Syria is the place of my father’s grave, and I feel its pain with every shell that falls. I did not choose it, but it is part of my DNA. Canada is where I find myself. It is my present and my future. It is where I started getting used to saying “thank you” all the time, and “sorry” even when it was not my mistake. It’s a country guided by rules and defined by kindness. I was not born or raised here, but I choose it to be part of my DNA too.
The incident at the U.S.-Canada border taught me two lessons: first, not to trust Google Maps, and second, to continually thank God for Canada. When I finally pulled up to the right border, the Canadian immigration officer working there greeted me with a bright smile. “You are a permanent resident,” she noted, “and you are coming home. Welcome back!”
She likely thought she was saying something ordinary to me that day, but I will never forget it. It was a reminder that I am living the dream.
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