SA 325 students meet the man who spent seven months in an airport

March 04, 2021

What might a course in political sociology entail at Simon Fraser University? In SA 325 - Political Sociology, a third year undergraduate course, it involves a series of weekly readings and discussions around topics on borders, migration, global financial crises, social movements and state economic powers. Often students engage in a class discussion on the readings and write a series of reflections followed by a term paper to complete the course. What makes the course special however is the ability to invite experts, guest speakers and individuals outside of the university to our classroom to provide real-world experiences of the topics we cover. While the pandemic has forced us in to an online environment, it has not prevented our ability to engage with the world.

During the current spring term, our online class was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to discuss and engage in topics beyond academic works. On February 22, we invited Hassan Al Kontar, to speak to our class about his experience as a Syrian refugee caught in the system of displacement. His raw and heart wrenching story of being treated by authorities from several different countries as less-than-human, experiences with systemic discrimination and human rights violations, brought insight to our conception of what it means to become a refugee in the 21st century.

Our instructor, May Hen-Smith, discovered Hassan’s story a few years ago through news outlets such as CBC (2018) and learned more about his story by following him on Twitter. Caught in the systems of displaced people, Hassan Al Kontar, a Syrian refugee, found himself stuck in a Malaysian airport for 7 months unable to leave without facing persecution back home or to travel elsewhere because his nationality was blacklisted by most airlines and countries.

He has since been sponsored by a Canadian group and now lives in Vancouver working for the Red Cross. SA 325 students took the time to reflect on how real-world issues colour their experience with the academic texts they consume, often without opportunity for consideration of real-life experiences. Below is a glimpse of the students' responses to his experiences and links to the literature we are engaging with on borders and migration.

Hassan Al Kontar, is a former Syrian refugee, active Twitter user, and the author of the forthcoming book Man@the_airport. Hassan was raised in a prosperous Syrian home, the middle child of a mechanical engineer and nurse. He worked in marketing from 2006  to 2011, until he was forced to hide from authorities in the United Arab Emirates. Now a permanent resident based in Vancouver, he continues to advocate for refugees around the world.

The authors of the student reflections are comprised of the following third year undergraduate students in Spring 2021 SA 325 (J100)- Political Sociology class at SFU. Some names are not listed due to students’ preference:

  • Gurjot Singh Athwal
  • Ravleen Banga
  • Gregory John Clark
  • Herman Singh Dhami
  • Somaya Fedayee
  • Nikou Moradi-Kelayeh
  • Shweta Parmod Sehijpaul
  • Samai Valladares
  • Philip Moussavi

Student Group 1 Response

Hassan Al-Kontar is famously known as the Man From the Airport. Drawing on the reality he endured for months during the Syrian Refugee Crisis, Hassan elaborated on the failure of the systems/governments of Syria, UAE, and Malaysia, with respect to the unfair treatment of refugees and workers who no longer hold visas to remain in the UAE. Themes of racism, prejudice, voicelessness, and discrimination were touched on. Hassan described how through the process of becoming a refugee to Canada, his status was transitioned from “a poor Syrian citizen” to a “global citizen” whose voice and opinions matter. He was no longer scared and hopeless as his story started to get global attention. Hassan compared his story to the current circumstances of everyone during the pandemic; much like refugees who cannot easily cross borders and travel, most people today cannot freely travel to most destinations and use their passports like before, due to the travel restrictions and regulations in place. Hassan described the feeling of helplessness and segregation (in the case of separation from family and friends and not being able to make a phone call to his family after being informed of his father’s passing. Hassan thoroughly compared and contrasted his life before losing his visa and after, to highlight the tremendous difference between his quality of life then, and post asylum-seeking. In doing so, he noted several ways he faced prejudice and unfair treatments at the hands of government agents, police, and jails. Racial prejudice was mentioned several times, as one of the experiences that stayed with Hassan the most, especially since he had not experienced it previously.  Ultimately, Hassan concluded his talk by reminiscing about some of the things he misses most about Syria: the smell of bread, and soil after rain, his family, and as he put it “his roots.” While he explained that he has accepted his past and lives in the present, Hassan explained that he still cannot help but feel sorry for the displaced Syrians both in and out of the country, as well as the reputation of Syria (mostly recognized as a war-torn country). Hassan stressed the importance of showing compassion to refugees and understanding the socio-political circumstances of individuals prior to judging them and disregarding their stories. Hassan discusses the political importance of citizenship; particularly where one originates from as a citizen and how your passport can create migrational hardships. He touched on the difficulties arousing from imprisonment for so-called “crimes”, which in reality was nothing more than overstaying a visa. He describes the impact of blacklisting different countries in peril, being from a country being treated as such, as undesired or criminal when attempting to escape war or migrate under a variety of circumstances. 

Hassan’s talk today relates to our previous guest lecture with Dr. Victoria Tse through a few different concepts. Victoria went into depth about contemporary issues such as the politics of immigration; the difficulties of ascertaining who can and cannot pass through your borders, as well as whether or not someone can stay or not. She also explored the concepts of assimilation, integration, as well as repatriation. A largely common concept between the two lecturers was the notion of citizenship & identity, and the synonymity between the two.  This ties into what Hassan mentioned about the blacklist on certain borders and although it may not be on paper, it is known amongst Syrians that they are not welcomed within certain borders and countries. As discussed in Victoria’s presentation, these borders dictate their own rules and regulations which is why Hassan was ultimately not welcomed within certain borders due to racism against Syrian people. He also mentioned how his passport was seen differently just because of it having a different flag and how if he carried a Canadian, UK or American passport, his story would not have been the same. 

A shocking and sad reality about Hassan’s experience is the fact that he is not the only story. He saw and met many more people who were going through the same discrimination that he experienced and amongst those people, one of them was a young 12-year-old boy. This is not an issue that should be normalized, but it should be spoken about much more. He was being treated like a criminal when he was completely innocent and the conditions he was living in were completely unfair. Hassan did not deserve the treatment that he received just because of his ethnicity. It was racist and unfair and no one can take that year back or the treatment that he went through, but his story must be widely shared in order to spread awareness. Hassan mentioned that as he speaks today, there is yet another Syrian going through what he went through years ago. 

Student Group 2 Response

Governance of borders and immigration policies are designed to operate in specific ways following specific procedures; these administrative regulations have holes that individuals can become trapped by. Canada like most nations that are willing to accept refugees have these regulations in place that put a person like Hassan Al Kontar into limbo. Victoria Tse spoke about the broad picture of immigration and how the systems operate while Hassan provided us with a first person account of how his situation occurred. Most refugees follow known migration routes and the systems to address them are built to service the people following them. Hassan did not follow a known Migration pattern as we learned from Tse’s presentation. Socially constructed borders built to support identifying one group from others create barriers that immigrants need to overcome. Refugees have some of the most challenges getting through these artificial constructs.

The occurrence of migration patterns can certainly be due to the fact that individuals are migrating to other locations in hopes of creating a better life, as was presented within Victoria’s presentation. But, at other times migration can indeed be forced, much like Hassan’s presentation highlighted. Both instances can cause a variety of issues, yet being forced to migrate is a decision that no one can prepare for. Hassan’s own experiences articulated how such occurrences can be very difficult as they can be very sudden. When individuals are presented with these major decisions, they do not have time to think and must act fast. Having to make a major decision that can have a long and meaningful impact on one’s life. Such decisions can in turn result in large waves of people needing to find new homes elsewhere, thus, creating a migration pattern that is essentially forced. When these individuals become refugees as a result of the real life scenarios that they are forced into, they are left to fend for themselves. Governments and organizations can be very unforgiving in these instances, leaving individuals to find solutions themselves. Which is what occurred to Hassan in Malaysia. Having to rapidly locate to another country can be a fight for survival and already posing various difficulties, therefore, expecting individuals to come up with their own solutions is highly disappointing. In these instances, it becomes known that existing structures and systems in place are letting people down.

Social media is now also impacting migration patterns in significant ways, changing the ebb and flow of how, why and where migrants go to. It allows people access to migratory institutions in fast and convenient ways not possible before. This was seen in Hassan’s case when social media allowed his message to get disseminated in an unimaginable scope and eventually to Canadian people and institutions, allowing him to migrate . Social media also allows migrants to access opportunities not known before through the information networks found on social media. They now access knowledge that only a specialist might have known about before, giving them new abilities to migrate. As people access new modes of thought from social media, they might also access new modes of thinking about citizenship. As they interact with the globe and other people, differences between people might become lowered and people cooperate through social media to migrate. Hassan’s story also showed the varied nature of language and power and how it connects to social media. Since he knew english he was able to communicate through social media with the anglophone world and thus be connected to Canadian people and institutions who were able to help him. 

Hassan’s story reminded me of the unfair world for refugees. However, I admire how he started working with refugees and trying to remove the cultural gap between Syrians and the Western countries. Since he has a big network of volunteers or professionals in his social media who were working with refugees and he can get their attention to the vulnerable refugees. I am from Afghanistan so I could relate to him and I could feel him when he talked about how the Syrians were treated at the airports. I think it is a mutual experience for most middle eastern countries’ citizens, the Arabs and Muslims. The main point I was thinking about when he was talking about his experience was how this issue can be solved and how to change the perspective of the world about Muslims. At the same time, it got me thinking about all the refugees who are waiting for years in the camps to hear from the UN and do not even have a voice like Hassan did. Moreover, the UN and the world needs to start thinking about the Muslims’ safety and the fact that they are not the threat but being threatened more than ever. One example is Hassan who did not commit any crimes but had to stay at an airport for months and imprisoned afterwards. 

Student Group 3 Response

With input from Dr. Tse past presentation, it seems like Hassan was influenced and incentivized by both push and pull factors. Hassan was pulled to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) for better economic and career opportunities. He was then pushed by the violence and upheaval that was going on in his country of origin. It was at this moment that Hassan became a part of the large Syrian diaspora escaping the civil war that was ravaging his country. Hassan was clear in noting that his personal story was not the only one out there and that there were and are other individuals in situations similar if not exactly the same to his experience. He was explicit in noting that it is the responsibility of the global population to keep dialogues open over issues of asylum seeking and refugee status. He made a point to endorse the act of reaching out to refugees and immigrants to break down the social barriers that turn people into “others.” He is a strong advocate for the humanization of the “other” in the hopes of realizing that there is no “other” just fellow human beings with different experiences.

Hassan mentioned that he was trying to go to countries that allowed Syrian’s in without a Visa. Borders determine who belongs and who does not. Hassan has first-hand experience of this. While living in the UAE, he knew he did not belong, but he could also not go back to Syria. When attempting to go to Ecuador or Cambodia, the door was closed on him. The Turkish airlines in particular did not let him board. Hassan’s mom and sister in particular, sold their gold necklaces so Hassan could go to Malaysia and fly out of the country. He lost the airfare and even the UNHCR were unable to help him. At one point the UNHCR went against him stating that he was a queue jumper. Dr. Tse spoke about migration corridors and how individuals will travel along paths of least resistance, that are closer to them or more financially sensible. Hassan did not have this choice after losing his work Visa in the UAE and getting tapped in Malaysia. He had planned how to travel to these countries in a way that was not necessarily convenient but were accessible to him as a Syrian. During the presentation, Hassan spoke about travelling as a Syrian. Even though it is not written down formally anywhere there is an unwritten rule of where to travel to and whom to travel with (airlines) if you are a Syrian. He decided not to go through any European, Canadian and American airports, but even then he was not able to proceed resulting in his ordeal. Dr.Tse touched on the important question of whether it is ethical to restrict who can leave the state or not, and Hassan mentioned that even though he was unable to leave the Malaysian airport he did leave briefly when being transported to a detention center. 

Hassan’s experience both in the UAE and Malaysia where he was imprisoned for not possessing a Visa, further highlights the persecution refugees experience when trying to build a new life. They leave their homes with a hope for a better future, but are instead faced with a journey that can often be filled with fear and uncertainty. They often experience xenophobia and discrimination, and can experience  persecution based on their religion, ethnicity, or political affiliations. This can be an isolating experience as they are separated from their support networks, such as their communities and loved ones. Refugees leave their homes for fear of their safety, as they are threatened with violence and persecution during times of war or political instability. However, the experiences that come after they leave their homes can sometimes be just as threatening. Having lost their homes and some even their loved ones in the process, they are faced with the challenging and often life threatening task of finding somewhere to call home. Hassan’s experience of losing everything while in the UAE, in particular his home highlights how precarious life can be as a refugee. 

One aspect that Hassan discussed which heavily influences the lives of many Syrians is the power of the passport. Which can be related to the week 4 seminar about different types of power. When Hassan was talking about the time he was jailed in the UAE he mentioned the power of a white male and his passport which he did not have. The white man was from the U.K. and he was able to harass the officials with threats such as wanting to be in contact with his national embassy which he can only do if his passport bears a flag. Which sequentially means that a nationality holds significant power as well. Hassan nationality as a Syrian deprived him of a passport meaning that he did not have the powers the rest of us have such as relying on embassies. Additionally, the only reason Hassan was deprived of a passport was because he chose not to fight in a war that he was ideologically against. Which means he was punished and forced to go through all these trials and tribulations because of one life decision that should not hold any consequence at all. However, during Hassan times at the airport he gained a different form of power not related to politics, but related to the media. His constant posts on twitter led him to gain worldwide recognition from governments and people. Which in return made government officials in Malaysia fear him due to international backlash. Which relates back to Hassan’s story about the snake in his youth. The moral being that both sides are equally scared of each other for no apparent reason.

This article was compiled by May Hen-Smith, Sessional Instructor, SA 325 – Spring 2021.