A visit from a Syrian refugee has given Shawnigan students a different perspective on conflict, displacement, and kindness.
In 2006, Hassan Al Kontar left Syria for the United Arab Emirates in hopes of evading his country's compulsory military service. In 2017, he was deported to Malaysia, was imprisoned, and ended up stranded in the Kuala Lumpur Airport for seven months.
After being frustrated by his interactions with state officials, he ultimately turned to social media. His pleas got the attention of Whistler resident Laurie Cooper, who, along with her organization Canada Caring, was eventually able to help him come to Canada.
Mrs. Cooper introduced Mr. Kontar to students before his Thursday morning presentation, and also provided some valuable context about international displacement. There are 68 million people (and counting) currently displaced around the world, though Cooper says "What inspires me is not the magnitude of the problem, but the individuals." Having sponsored dozens of refugees, Cooper says "Everyone has a story … everyone has a family."
As well as speaking to senior students before the start of the academic day, Al Kontar attended several social studies classes to share his story and answer questions. A recurring message, he stressed that pre-civil war Syria was full of well-educated professionals who lived in a society not unlike Canada. Still wanted by the Syrian government (both for skipping his military service and for his political statements), he also acknowledged that his family in Syria still faces intimidation and reprisal.
"Even in my wildest dreams, I could not imagine coming to Canada," Al Kontar said, encouraging students to stand up for whatever they believe in. "There is a hero in each one of you. Feed that hero, not with food, but with knowledge and education."
Fittingly, Mr. Kontar's visit was organized by Grade 12 student Kerry W. as a prelude to this weekend's ShawMUN conference in Victoria.
Shawnigan Lake School is a co-educational boarding school on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The school is home to nationally-ranked academics, arts and athletics, with 100 per cent of graduates accepted to university.