I I was working as a marketing manager for an insurance company in Abu Dhabi when the civil war broke out in Syria, the country of my birth. I had left five years earlier, at 25, but military service in Syria is compulsory, and the outbreak of war meant that I was expected to return. But he didn’t want any role in the killing machine.
When I refused to join the army, the Syrian embassy did not renew my passport. Without it, I could not extend my work visa, so I was left without a job. For the next several years, I was forced to live under the radar, staying in the UAE illegally. I sold my belongings and worked off the grid when I could, sleeping in public gardens or stairways. At the end of 2016, I was finally stopped by the police. After two months in an immigration detention jail, I was deported to Malaysia.
Malaysia is one of the few countries that allows Syrians an arrival visa, but it is not part of the 1951 UN Refugee Conventionso I was unable to seek asylum there and had to leave within 90 days. I had to find a country that would allow me to enter. I bought a $ 2,000 ticket to Ecuador; my mother and sister raised the money by selling their gold necklaces. On the day of the flight, a Turkish Airlines supervisor refused to let me board; gave no reason.
Unable to get a refund, I bought a ticket to Cambodia in one last attempt to get out of the country. I arrived at Phnom Penh International, but was denied entry and sent back to Malaysia on the same plane. As I was deported, I was unable to re-enter Malaysia, so until I found another solution, I would remain in exile in the Kuala Lumpur airport arrivals hall.
Two Egyptians, who had been deported from South Korea five days earlier, gave me a thin blanket and showed me where to sleep. The floor was cold and hard, and I was still awake at 2 in the morning when two policemen came to question me. I would soon get used to the constant visits from airport officials.
The Egyptians went ahead and I was alone. I spent a large part of my time solving day-to-day problems, such as showering, cleaning my clothes, charging my mobile. Air Asia took on the responsibility of feeding me (I was still officially their passenger) and they left me an airplane meal three times a day, but it was always the same: chicken and rice.
Drinking coffee regularly became an obsession. I became friends with a cleaner who, for a fee, agreed to make regular trips to Starbucks on my behalf. I paid other members of the cleaning staff to bring my clothes home to wash and learned to shower in the handicap toilets in the early hours. I began to sleep under the escalator, creating a sense of privacy by surrounding myself with plastic maintenance barriers. However, there were many things I could not control: the omnipresent lighting and the airport announcements that woke me up.
After a month or so, I started to worry that this is my life now.
I was trying to remind myself that I was not a criminal and that it was not my fault that my country was at war. I had a phone and a background in marketing, and I was wondering if that was something I could take advantage of. I set up Twitter and Instagram accounts and started sharing my story. There was little response at first, but after BBC News Asia featured my story, interest grew.
Over the next several months, I received both encouragement and abuse online, with passengers coming in endlessly to request selfies. Most importantly, however, I contacted a group of Canadians who helped ensure that I had everything I needed and worked tirelessly to be able to apply for asylum in Canada.
In all, I spent seven months at the airport and another two in a detention center, but I would have endured years in limbo as long as I knew I would eventually regain some degree of freedom. Many other Syrians have not been so lucky; If my mother hadn’t insisted that I learn English as a child and my father hadn’t taught me patience, I wouldn’t have gotten this far.
Now I work for the Canadian Red Cross and I am helping with an organization called Operation not forgotten, which resettles refugees. I hope that by telling my story it helps people understand what it means to be Syrian in a world that does not welcome us.
As told to Chris Broughton
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George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism