Hassan Al-Kontar gained international headlines last year after he found himself in limbo at Kuala Lumpur airport unable to return to war-torn Syria, nor able to find a country that would resettle him.
It was a situation lasting more than six months and was compared to the Tom Hanks film The Terminal.
Eventually, after being privately sponsored by refugee advocacy groups, he arrived in Canada in November 2018.
Now, he wants to pay the favour forward and help those who are stuck on Manus Island and Nauru.
Mr Al-Kontar says a number of asylum seekers there contacted him for his help after his story made international headlines – and he has never forgotten their plight.
But it was after the Australian federal election and following a number of suicide attempts on Manus, that the project got up and running, he said.
“I sent them a message saying that you are not forgotten, hold back, help is coming,” Mr Al-Kontar told SBS News this week.
The Department of Home Affairs confirmed to SBS News last month that 457 asylum seekers remained in Papua New Guinea.
‘People have the power to change things’
The Syrian refugee has teamed up with Canadian not-for-profits Canada Caring Society and MOSAIC, a refugee resettlement group, as well as the Refugee Council of Australia to sponsor up to 200 refugees on Manus and Nauru to be resettled in Canada.
Refugees can be privately sponsored in Canada by individuals or community groups if sponsors pay for the costs of resettlement, including food, rent, interpreters and other services.
The crowdfunding project needs AU$18,000 for each refugee’s application, with a total goal of AU$3.7 million to help with the cost of resettlement.
Mr Al-Kontar says he feels a duty to help those in limbo because he too felt what it was like to be born “on the wrong side of the world” when his claims for asylum were consistently rejected.
He said he long gave up on the power of governments or organisations including the United Nations to help alleviate the plight of refugees.
“I believe in people, individuals. People helped me, so it’s time for me to help others,” he said.
“Why Australia? Because I believe the Australian people have the power to change things … if they want to.”
‘Not shaming Australian government’
Mr Al-Kontar says he is not trying to make any political point through the project but simply wants to find a solution.
“We are not here launching this operation just to publicly shame the Australian government, to put pressure on them or to fight against them,” he said.
“No – we are actually seeking their help, we are begging them to do the right thing. We are encouraging them to say ‘let’s deal with this together to end it’ on a humanitarian basis, not on a political basis.”
Refugee Council of Australia CEO Paul Power said it is “embarrassing” that a politically-created problem is being looked to be resolved not by government but by private individuals and organisations.
“It’s embarrassing Australia has created these sets of circumstances whereby people who are regarded internationally as basically being Australia’s responsibility are not going to be assisted by this country, but unfortunately we’ve been in this situation for more than six years now,” he told SBS News.
“There are hundreds of individuals we know are suffering … they need a solution and (this is a) pragmatic response.
“In many ways what we are seeing are volunteers in Canada, people of goodwill in a number of countries including Australia raising funds to, at one level, get the Australian government out of a problem that it has created for itself.”
Mr Power says he doesn’t expect resistance from the Australian government to the proposal.
“We think privately the Australian government is going to be relieved that a constructive answer is being found for people for whom there is no constructive answer available at the moment.”
A new hope for refugees
Manus Island detainee Behrouz Boochani said the project has brought hope to his fellow refugees.
“This is a generous act by people of Canada and the Australians who support this,” he said.
“Australia has not only detained us but also our families, because there are many people who are separated from their wives and children.
“It can give them the hope that they will embrace their beloved ones in Canada hopefully in near future.”
While the process is likely to take up to two years, Mr Boochani is calling for the applications to be expedited.
“What we want from Canada is to consider the fact that we have been here for six years, therefore, Canada should process their application faster than usual as these people have already lost many years of their life.”
The Refugee Council of Australia is assisting in identifying people for resettlement.
It says most of those have been rejected for resettlement in the United States but would not not have adverse security assessments in Australia or Canada.
“There are some peculiarities in US law making it much harder for people who have lived in some civil war situations before fleeing or who’ve grown up in countries like Iran where the United States have a whole lot of rules and embargoes [imposed],” Mr Power said.
“So there are significant numbers of refugees ruled ineligible by the United States for reasons that would not be security issues as understood by Canada or Australia.”
Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and his department have been contacted by SBS News for comment.
Readers seeking support and information about suicide can contact Lifeline 24 hours a day online and on 13 11 14.