Middle East

Hassan al-Kontar: Who is the man trapped in an airport helping now?

Hassan al-Kontar Image copyright Courtesy Hassan al-Kontar
Image caption Hassan al-Kontar

Hassan al-Kontar became known around the world as "the man from the airport" after spending months living in the Kuala Lumpur International Airport. He was granted asylum in Canada last year and now hopes to help 200 refugees also in limbo to resettle in a new home.

The 38-year-old first became aware of the issue of asylum seekers on Manus Island and Nauru when some of them contacted him on social media, explaining their situation.

At the time, he was documenting online his own plight - left living for months in a Malaysian airport in 2018 following a series of events that left him stranded when the Syrian war broke out in 2011.

Now in Canada, he has become an advocate on issues pertaining to refugees and settlement.

He is partnering with two Canadian non-profit organisations - Canada Caring Society and Mosaic, who both work in refugee resettlement - to get 200 refugees currently on Manus Island and Nauru to be privately sponsored to come to Canada.

The newly launched endeavour - dubbed Operation Not Forgotten - has been endorsed by the Refugee Council of Australia and Amnesty International.

"We are trying to give hope for the hopeless people," he told the BBC from his home in British Columbia.

Since 2012, Australia has sent asylum seekers arriving by boat to Manus Island and Nauru under a controversial policy aimed at deterring further arrivals.

Image copyright AFP/Getty Images
Image caption Australia's detention of asylum-seekers on the island of Manus has drawn much criticism.

Canberra has steadfastly ruled out ever letting those people settle in Australia, even those found to be refugees.

The bipartisan policy has been justified as humane because it prevents human trafficking and deaths at sea.

But the UN and others say asylum seekers on the islands have frequently suffered human rights abuses, including sexual and physical assaults. Doctors have also increasingly warned of mental health crises.

Though no longer officially in detention, the asylum seekers are now effectively in indefinite limbo in transit centres - contributing, experts say, to high levels of self-harm.

Some refugees have been resettled in the US under a one-off deal, but about 800 people remain on the islands, said Human Rights Watch last month. Most have been there since 2013.

Australia has seen almost two decades of highly politicised debate about border protection. It continues to refuse a standing offer from New Zealand to take 150 refugees - arguing doing so would provide a "back door" to Australia.

Mr Kontar was deeply troubled by the situation, and spoke about it to Laurie Cooper, a volunteer with Canada Caring Society, who was instrumental in helping bring him to Canada.

She told the BBC she was telling her daughter one evening about the "desperate situation" for those on Manus Island and Nauru last May.

It was just after the Australian general election and many asylum seekers had hoped that a change in government would help them, but the incumbent government held power.

There were several cases of attempted suicide by some asylum seekers following the news.

She said she exclaimed to her daughter that night: "Goddamn it, we should just sponsor all those guys."

When Ms Cooper woke up the next morning, she realised it was a good idea, and Mr Kontar agreed.

"These guys have been called the forgotten men of Manus and nobody has been able to find a way to help them and it just dawned on me that because of the amazing private sponsorship programme we have in Canada that there actually was a way if we could raise the money," she says.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Nauru is roughly about 3,000 km (1,800 miles) north-east of Australia

Since the 1970s, Canada has allowed private citizens, along with authorised sponsorship groups, to directly sponsor refugees by providing newcomers with basic material needs like food, clothing, housing, and support integrating into Canadian society.

The organisations behind Operation Not Forgotten will raise the funds to sponsor and support the refugees for their first year in Canada, and are training volunteer settlement teams to provide the necessary support for them when they arrive.

Under Canadian sponsorship guidelines, C$16,500 ($12,500; £10,300) needs to be raised for each refugee to support them for 12 months - meaning the groups need to raise C$3.3m in total.

Australian citizens who are supporting the endeavour have so far raised over C$100,000.

"We are not launching this operation to publically shame or to embarrass or to put a pressure or push the Australian government - that's not our intention," says Mr Kontar.

"We are offering our friendship, we are encouraging them to do the right thing."

The organisations have put the word out to refugees there asking them to register with them if they are interested resettlement to Canada, and more than 200 have done so. The group plans to focus first on those who currently are not eligible for resettlement anywhere else and who have no other alternatives.

They will begin submitting applications as funds come in and it could take up to two years from that point before resettlement, but Ms Cooper says they may ask the Canadian government to expedite the cases.

The refugees are from countries including Iran, Myanmar, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Iraq. Some of them are stateless.

Mr Kontar says he knows from personal experience what it is like to live in limbo and wants them to remain hopeful of a better future.

"I want them to hold their ground and keep the faith and believe in us," he says."They are not forgotten, that's for sure."

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Media captionHassan al-Kontar spoke to the BBC during his ordeal at the airport last year

Additional reporting by Jay Savage

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