LONDON — Stranded in a foreign airport for nearly 60 days, trying not to lose hope of ever getting out.
That’s the reality for Hassan al Kontar, 36, a Syrian who has been stuck at the Kuala Lumpur international airport since March 7.
Before a civil war broke out in Syria in 2011, al Kontar was living what would be considered a normal life. A native of Sweida, a city about 60 miles south of the Syrian capital, Damascus, al Kontar worked as an insurance marketing manager in the United Arab Emirates.
Then, with hostilities escalating, he was summoned for military service in his home country. After refusing to return and join the military, he says the Syrian embassy in the UAE declined to renew his passport in 2012. That meant his work permit couldn’t be renewed either, so al Kontar lost his job and went into hiding in the UAE for the next six years.
“I am really tired," he said. "I keep shouting that I am not a bad guy, I am not a coward — I can fight, but it’s not my fight. It’s someone else’s fight in my land."
Al Kontar says he realizes there are Syrians in far worse situations, but his predicament has been mentally exhausting.
He was apprehended by UAE authorities last year and says he struggled to avoid deportation back to Syria. Al Kontar, who was able to renew his passport last year, 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 he says his flight was canceled at the last minute by Turkish Airlines. He tried going to Cambodia, but was sent back to the airport in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's capital, in early March, and has been stranded there since.
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Al Kontar's time at the airport has been challenging. He has access to two bathrooms and a waiting area in the transit section of the airport. AirAsia, the airline that took him back to Malaysia, provides him with three airline meals a day.
During the first few days at the airport, he slept on the chairs in the waiting area, but has now moved to sleep on the floor under a stairwell.
For weeks he has confronted basic logistical dilemmas such as where to take a shower, how to clean his clothes and where to dry them — documenting his daily life on his Twitter account.
Nearly two months into his ordeal, his struggles continue. “The daily routine is the same, nothing has changed,” al Kontar said.
He says he tries to stay positive, because "otherwise, it’s better to die" — as he spoke with NBC News, the frustration in his voice was punctuated by the chimes of airport announcements.
He says he can’t leave the airport because he was “blacklisted” for five years by Malaysian authorities for originally overstaying his visa. Returning to Syria is not an option either as he says he is liable to be arrested for evading military service.
After his tweets attracted the attention of international media, al Kontar says Malaysia gave him a temporary one-month pass into the country. It would allow him to leave the airport, but while he is thankful for it, al Kontar says it’s a temporary fix, with no long-term prospects.
“I am a highly-qualified professional — desperate for a place where I can be safe, legal, not looking over my shoulder or being on the run … a place where I can work and prove myself."
Malaysia Airports, the company that manages the airport in Kuala Lumpur, is aware of al Kontar's case, which is now being handled by Malaysian immigration authorities known as "Jabatan Imigresen Malaysia," or JIM.
"JIM has informed us that they are monitoring the situation closely and have taken necessary steps in managing the situation," Malaysia Airports said. "Malaysia Airports will give full cooperation to the relevant authorities in helping to resolve this situation."
The United Nations Refugee Agency said it has also been in touch with al Kontar and continues to engage with the Malaysian authorities on his case, adding "reasonable assistance" has been offered for him to enter the country by the Malaysian government.
Much of the media coverage of his ordeal draws comparisons to the film "The Terminal," in which Tom Hanks’s character is stuck at New York's Kennedy Airport. But al Kontar says that referring to a Hollywood movie, which may reflect the precariousness of his situation, takes away from his plight and the struggle of the Syrian people, who he says are "paying the price of the war [they] have nothing to do with."
There is one beacon of hope remaining for al Kontar: A group of volunteers in Canada are determined to get him out of Malaysia.
The group has crowdfunded for him, arranged for sponsorship and filed all the necessary paperwork to apply for a temporary resident permit that would allow him to legally travel to Canada.
His application was submitted last week, and now all he can do is wait. He has also asked his Twitter followers to reach out to Canada’s immigration minister to drum up support for his case.
Plz retweet I have Some good news and I need your help all of you to make it happen. Please send an email to Mr. Ahmed Hussen - Canada's Minister of Immigration. "email@example.com" Tell him you support a Temporary Resident Permit for Hassan to come to Canada immediately pic.twitter.com/Wmpb2CSsHU
Al Kontar said he feels Canada is his only chance out now. “If I lose that hope, I don’t know what to do," he said. "I don’t want to think of the possibility that it’s not going to happen because I may break down.”