Freelance journalism Abby Seiff’s writing and photography have appeared in Newsweek, Time, the Associated Press, and others.
Trapped in an arrivals hall in a Malaysian airport for the past 92 days, Hassan Al Kontar narrates his strange new life through selfie videos.
The arrivals hall of Kuala Lumpur International Airport 2 is a utilitarian affair. Large windows look out onto the tarmac, the slicked linoleum floor inclines gently to the immigration counters. People move fast here—the business travelers, the parents with small kids, the backpackers and students returning home. They barrel forward, toward the next step, out there. Confined to this nowhere land, Hassan Al Kontar stays still.
It has been 91 days and counting since Al Kontar entered the arrivals hall off of a flight from Cambodia. Since then, he has been trapped by a combination of airline bureaucracy and the vagaries of the modern global systems of asylum. Al Kontar is unable to return to his war-torn homeland, where he says he would be arrested for dodging an army draft, nor to the United Arab Emirates, where he was deported last year after overstaying his work visa. He was turned back from Cambodia after immigration authorities refused to let him enter without giving a reason; and he was refused passage on a flight bound for Ecuador—two of the only countries that permit visa-free entry to Syrians. He has no desire to gain asylum seeker status in Malaysia, where refugees are barred from working and face routine harassment. And so his world has shrunk to the fluorescent-tinged interior of the low-cost carrier arrivals hall.
To pass the time, Al Kontar video chats with his mother, surfs the Internet, and reaches out, tirelessly, to aid agencies, non-governmental organizations, and immigration officials—anyone who might be able to help his case. He also tweets, narrating his strange new life through selfie videos.
“There's no other places or countries accepting us, and I don't know what should I do,” he explains in his first recording, posted on March 12th, five days after he arrived back at Kuala Lumpur International Airport. “Someone advised me to make a video.”
In his Twitter videos, of which there are now dozens, he talks about what it feels like to be Syrian (“lonely, weak, unwanted, rejected”) and his battles with hopelessness. He talks, too, about daily life at the airport; a vein of dark humor rippling through.
“Hey guys, how are you? I just got some good news and I think it's worth it to share it. After all these days, it's definitely worth it to share it,” he says in an April 14th video, pausing for a comedic beat. “I just got a chocolate. Yep. I already ate half of it and I'm thinking about the second half.”
Watching the videos one after another, you can see his neatly slicked hair slowly grow longer, his beard, scruffier. He cycles through his handful of shirts. With his horn rimmed glasses and Henleys, he looks every bit the marketing manager he once was.
“I need a permanent solution where I can be safe, where I can be legal, where I can work,” he explains calmly in a video posted on April 13th. “Hear what I am saying. No temporary solutions, I will not accept it, I will take the responsibility of my situation whatever the consequence. I cannot live this life anymore, and run, to be illegal or just to postpone the problem in three or four months.”
The tweets have struck a chord with thousands. Many of his videos have upwards of 10,000 views, and people from around the world have offered messages of support, even offers to pass through the airport and bring him food or books. Below each tweet, heartfelt responses in Arabic and English.
Keep fighting the good fight and don't let them break you.
I hope those who save you from this Kafkaian situation will listen to your words of wisdom.
I pray you have good news soon.
On the morning of April 23rd, I met Al Kontar in person. I had just flown to Kuala Lumpur for a few days of work. But as I sped through the arrivals hall, there he was, sitting alone with his carry-on and backpack, sipping from a plastic travel mug, looking like any other traveler. I had thought I might meet him, but on the way out, not in. As I paused to collect myself, he got up and walked past.
I introduced myself and asked him if we could speak. Al Kontar looked concerned. “It's not a good day for you to come,” he said. “They're not happy with all the media and they want me out of here.” He told me we could chat a bit, but that I shouldn't take out a notebook or recorder. Dark circles limned his eyes and his skin was pale, almost waxy, after too many days without sunlight. Between the added hassles from security and his recent discovery that someone made a fake Instagram account in his name to solicit money, Al Kontar was having a terrible day.
“Even in here there are good days and bad,” he told me several times. We talked quietly about his situation, about the kind cleaners and ground crew who befriended him and the less kind higher-ups. He said senior staff were trying to make his situation more difficult through small things, like not letting him leave his bags on a chair when he went to the bathroom or giving him a hard time when they spotted him in an interview. He asked if I could tell him about the outside world. Taken aback, I made a half-hearted joke about how everyone just sits inside on their computers. “I'd love to have a computer in here,” he said wistfully.
An airport security guard sat down at the end of our bench, staring studiously at his phone. “That's one of them,” Al Kontar said under his breath. When I stood up to leave, he suggested hugging goodbye so that the guard would assume it was a social visit.
“Give the guys my love,” he said loudly.
That was it, our exchange over in some 10 minutes. I walked back toward immigration, sailing through the efficient systems that greet those of us with the right passports. Al Kontar stayed put.
The intervening weeks have brought much of the same for Al Kontar: messages of support, requests for interviews, unwanted advice. His videos continue to pinball from dark comedies—the relentless boarding call trill, an exploration of cutting one's own hair—to pointed critiques of refugee policy and the media. Holding up his coffee mug as he runs the tap in a public bathroom, Al Kontar mocks the selective editing of outlets that turned his discourses on refugee rights to “how I drink coffee, how I take a shower.”
“Governments around the world are not doing their duties regarding the refugees. Most of them at least, they are just trying to ignore it, locking people into detention camps for years. This is immoral, this is inhumane, and this is unacceptable. Lesson learned. No more recorded interviews anymore,” he tells his Twitter followers on May 11th.
At the end of April he announced that a group of Canadian volunteers had reached out with a lawyer, work offer, and sponsor. The last step was to convince Canada's minister of immigration to issue a temporary resident permit.
"When the rest of the world was either watching, or just ignoring, or just making me their scoop, a great country, a real humanitarian society ... decided to stand up to show the rest of the world how to behave when there's a human desperately in need of help," he says in a video posted to Twitter. "I need your help to send a support email to [Immigration Minister] Mr. Ahmed Hussain asking for the same, so when they wake up in the morning they will find their mailbox full of supporting messages. I will write it down for you. It will be easy. Please retweet and share as much as you can. Thank you."
That was April 27th. A petition to the minister remains pinned to the top of his account. Al Kontar remains at the airport.