On the anniversary of Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, many will reminisce again about him as a journalist and a public figure, a dissident and a victim of a ghastly crime. But on the day of his death, I remember him as Jamal, the human being.
My first contact with him came during my own moment in the media spotlight in 2018. Perhaps you saw the headlines in April of that year: “Syrian refugee stuck in Malaysia airport”.
How did I get into there?
My misfortune began in 2011, when war broke out in my country. At that time, I was working in the UAE and decided to stay away from the war. I did not join the fight, simply because I didn’t believe in it, I refused to be a part of a killing machine, to kill my own brothers and destroy my own house.
Soon, however, I lost my work permit and became illegal. Despite my best efforts to lay low, I was detained in October 2017 and deported to Malaysia, as it was one of a few countries giving Syrians visas on arrival.
There I could neither apply for asylum nor obtain a work permit. So after spending a few months there, I decided to leave. I tried to travel to Ecuador and Cambodia but was refused entry and sent back to Malaysia, where I was also not allowed in.
That is how I got stuck at the airport in Kuala Lumpur for months.
My story first appeared in the Arabic-language media. I found the public response disheartening. Reading even a handful of comments on social media was enough to make me want to avoid the glare of the media altogether even if it was the only thing stopping the immigration authorities from sweeping me under the rug altogether, and sending me into detention, or worse – back to Syria, where I would face detention or death.
Those few who paid attention to my story were bullying me online, questioning what I was saying, accusing me of being a coward, a traitor and an extremist, and altogether showing no sympathy for my situation. To the rest of the world, which had grown tired of the Syrian tragedy by then, I was yet another faceless Syrian refugee, rendered homeless by the war.
But there was one person, one journalist, who saw me as a human being and felt my pain. He gave me the strength I needed to push forward. His name was Jamal Khashoggi.
We first made contact on what was just another ordinary morning for me, watching the aeroplanes, and listening to the garbled flight announcements, checking my cheap mobile phone every once and a while for an update. The phone was a lifeline, and a temperamental one, as it turned on and off whenever it wanted, and my fear was it would die completely, and leave me cut-off from the outside world.
That morning, I noticed some unusual activity on my Twitter account: there was a surge in comments about my case. As it turned out, Jamal had just followed me and shared one of my posts on Twitter.
This was a big deal for me. While much of the world came to know Jamal through his grisly death, in the Arab world, his name had been well known for years.
We knew him first as a consultant for the Saudi monarchy, a man with plenty of power and luxury at his fingertips. Then as he grew unsatisfied with his role as a supporter of such authority, he became an outspoken, at times controversial commentator, who started to say “no” in his own way, using his pen.
It was this well-known figure who decided to bring attention – sympathetic attention – to my misfortune when so many others had treated me with indifference or hostility. This was not in response to any outreach on my side. He did it himself, voluntarily, simply out of compassion.
I immediately reached out to him to thank him for his kindness, and for providing a voice for those who lacked one. A day later, he sent a short message in reply, saying: “Hassan, your last tweet was wonderful, in which you combined your personal suffering with that of millions of Arab youth. I suggest that after every message you post, you talk a little bit about yourself and the developments of your situation, to add a word about how you ended up at the airport. Tell us about revolution, your hope for freedom, the Arab Spring, the need for justice, employment. Tell us about a generation that lacks education. Tell us, why we need peace in the Arab world!”
He added, “I am trying to help you with an American friend here but now I can’t promise anything. Hang on. Every day the number of people caring and praying for you will increase.”
He did not lie to me: he did what he could. As we both knew, it was almost impossible for someone like me to travel to the US, since Syrians were a target of US President Donald Trump’s travel ban, as they still are.
Then things turned dark, very suddenly. On October 1, I was arrested at the airport and put in detention, which would nearly result in my deportation to Syria. The next day, on October 2, the worst befell Jamal – he was assassinated at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Removed from the world, I only learned of this tragedy 25 days later. My Canadian lawyer managed to hire a Malaysian lawyer to check in on me. At the end of the hourlong visit, I asked him, “What is going on in the outside world? Any news? Anything about Syria?”
He replied, “You know. The world is busy with the murder of the Saudi journalist.”
“Which journalist. Who?”
My body went cold. I broke into a sweat, and my gaze darted around the room as I tried to avoid eye contact with the lawyer. In that silence, the only sound I heard was my heavy breathing and heartbeat.
The lawyer, seeing my reaction, refused to provide any more details. Before he left, he said, “I’m sorry. I thought you knew. I regret telling you.”
When I returned to my overcrowded cell, I felt lost. I could not eat or sleep.
Jamal was not a relative or a friend. We had only exchanged those few messages on Twitter. But he gave me hope – the most valuable thing to have when every day you dread being stuck in limbo forever, or worse still being deported to your death.
There have been precious few people like Jamal – people who have known power, who have wielded it, but have chosen to give it up, speak up and uplift the powerless and the voiceless. His death was a loss not just to his family, friends and his country, but also to the whole region, where greed for power has left many of us destitute and despaired.
Eventually Canada accepted my asylum application. The Malaysian authorities escorted me from the jail directly to the airport and put me on a flight to Canada.
Today, in the safety of my new home, I remember Jamal, the human, and I wish there would be more people like him in the Middle East and the rest of the world.
Rest in peace, Jamal. The truth will not die, justice will prevail, one day.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.