As It Happens

Saudi sisters in Georgia need to go where their family can't follow, says Canadian advocate

When Maha al-Subaie, 28, and Wafa al-Subaie, 25, flew to the nation of Georgia this week, they turned to an online, global network of Saudi women who help amplify stories like theirs.

Maha al-Subaie, 28, and Wafa al-Subaie, 25, fled their home and their allegedly abusive family

Saudi sisters Maha al-Subaie, 28, and Wafa al-Subaie, 25, took to Twitter on Wednesday to say they had arrived in the country of Georgia and needed help from the international community. (@GeorgiaSisters/Twitter)
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Update: Maha and Wafa al-Subaie said on Friday they have applied for asylum in Georgia but still feared they could be reached by their family and forced back to Saudi Arabia, Reuters reports. 


Transcript

Two Saudi sisters who fled their home and ended up stranded in Georgia need to find safe haven in a country where their families can't follow, says a woman in Canada who is helping them.

When Maha al-Subaie, 28, and Wafa al-Subaie, 25, flew to the nation of Georgia this week to get away from their allegedly abusive family, they turned to an online, global network of Saudi women who help amplify stories like theirs.

In January, those women lent their collective efforts to spreading the word about 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed after she fled Saudi Arabia and became trapped in an airport in Thailand. Mohammed has since claimed asylum in Canada

Now that same network — which includes a woman in Canada whose identity As It Happens is protecting — is helping the sisters spread the word about their plight and navigate the complicated bureaucracy of seeking international protection. 

"I have shared this same pain before," the woman, who CBC is calling Heba, told As It Happens host Carol Off. "I understand what's happening to them."

As It Happens has reviewed screengrabs of Heba's correspondence with the sisters.

Fears their family will 'hunt them down'

The sisters' troubles began when Maha decided to divorce her husband, says Heba.

"When she got divorced, their family kind of felt ashamed of her because her husband said that she betrayed him. And this is a lie. He said that just for her reputation to be ruined and as a revenge of her," Heba said.

"And then everything turned down for her. They started abusing her for the smallest thing and they locked her at the home."

When Wafa started standing up for her big sister, she too became the target of abuse, Heba said. So they decided to run.

Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport on Jan. 12, 2019. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Saudi Arabia has strict "guardian" laws that force women to obtain the permission of a male family member — usually their husband, father or brother — if they want to work, marry or travel.

In order to get out of the Kingdom, the sisters stole their father's phone and signed into the Saudi app Absher to order passports.

"It is very risky," Heba said. "They have no guarantee that he's not going to get in his account and see that."

Georgia offers to help

Their plan worked and they made it to Georgia, one of a handful of countries that Saudis can travel to without a visa. 

On Wednesday, they posted a video on Twitter announcing their arrival and calling on the international community for help.

"We are in danger. We need your support to deliver our voice. We want protection. ... Please help us," Maha said in the video.

Immigration authorities in the former Soviet republic visited the siblings in their temporary apartment in Tbilisi, providing them with information on how to apply for asylum in the country, the Georgian interior ministry said.

But Heba says that Georgia isn't safe for the sisteres, because of the easy access granted to Saudis.

"You have a whole tribe that can come after you and hunt you down in Georgia without asking for a visa or any difficulties," Heba said. 

The UN's refugee agency (UNHCR) says Georgia is a signatory to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, "and any person requesting international protection in Georgia has access to a fair and effective asylum procedure conducted by the government."

"The case is in the hand of the Georgian authorities who provided information to the sisters on asylum procedures," UNHCR spokesperson Babar Baloch said in an emailed statement. 

Passport problems

The sisters had planned to apply for a visa to Australia, says Heba, but were informed that their family had cancelled their passports — something the Saudi Embassy in Tbilisi denies.

"The embassy of the kingdom of Saudi Arabia confirms that their passports are still in force, and there is no truth to the circulated allegations that they have been canceled," the embassy said in a written statement.

Ultimately, Heba says there's nothing she or her colleagues can do to ensure the sisters' safe passage to another country — except tell their story to whoever will listen.

She says it's important for her to help other Saudi women fleeing an oppressive regime that limits their personal freedoms. 

It wasn't until she came to Canada for her education that she realized her full potential, she said.

"I thought I'm very weak. My whole life, I was raised like this," she said.

"It was shocking for me tasting this freedom and I actually want all other girls to know that they are capable of doing things without needing a man. They can decide. They are very powerful. Maybe some of them can be be better than me, but they don't know it yet."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Heba produced by Jeanne Armstrong.