As It Happens

How a Saudi woman in Canada helped Rahaf al-Qunun tell the world about her plight

When an 18-year-old Saudi woman found herself stranded in an airport in Thailand with no passport and the threat of deportation, she reached out to another Saudi woman, who fled her own country for Canada.

Saudi asylum-seeker launched #SaveRahaf campaign with help from an underground online activist network

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is pictured here at transit hotel inside the Suvarnabhumi international airport Monday before being taken to a safe house to have her case assessed by the UN refugee agency. (Thai Immigration Bureau via EPA-EFE)

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When 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun found herself stranded in an airport in Thailand with no passport and the threat of deportation, she reached out to an underground online network of Saudi women for help.

Qunun has alleged she suffered emotional and physical abuse at the hands of her family in Saudi Arabia. When she and her relatives were in Kuwait this weekend, she fled on a flight to Thailand, with the hopes of making it to Australia. But she was stopped by Thai immigration officials during a stopover in Bangkok and had her passport seized. 

She spent the weekend barricaded in a Bangkok airport hotel room tweeting her story to the world. After her story attracted global attention, Thai officials returned her passport and released her to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, where she is now being protected.

But the #SaveRahaf campaign would have been impossible without help from an online group of like-minded Saudi women who campaigned for women's rights online.

One of those women, who lives in Canada, spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about how the events unfolded. CBC is withholding her name and location for her safety.

Here is part of their conversation.

Can you just tell me what these last 72 hours have been like for you as you tried to help Rahaf al-Qunun?

It was extremely stressful as we were doing tremendous work to get this account to the world, and contacting other organizations and whoever we could.

The first tweet, as we understand it, was from Rahaf herself. She wrote in Arabic. It was about 3:20 in the morning in Thailand, and she wrote: "I am the girl who escaped Kuwait to Thailand. My life is in danger if I'm forced to return to Saudi Arabia." What happened after that?

She actually contacted us before she tweets this. You are just sitting there, living your life, and you get this, like, shocking news, and someone who's asking you for help.

I don't know how to explain how I felt. I just felt like, how can I help? 

But before that began, you knew about what she was going through. How did she explain to you where she was and how dangerous things were for her?

I've known her, like, for a year, but I knew that she wanted to escape Saudi and her family.

Royal Thai Police officers stand outside the embassy of Saudi Arabia after Thai Immigration Police Chief Surachet Hakparn, not pictured, met with Saudi officials in Bangkok on Tuesday. (Diego Azubel/EPA-EFE)

Was there a network of people helping?

There were some groups that have been established on social media. I joined one of the groups a year ago ... [and] she was in the same group with me.

What was that group about?

It was just a feminist group trying to ... end women in slavery.

They were trying to spreading the awareness between Saudi women, you know, because we've been raised to be less than a man. We're not equal.

She decided she was going to do something. ... You and others were in constant communication with her during this time. How tense was that for her and for all of you?

It was very scary.

We need to, like, see all the direct messages on her account, because all of us — the four of us — are locked into her account because there's a lot, a lot, a lot of messages.

We need to see the direct messages, which ones are important, and contact and reply to the journalists and other people who are important, who can help.

What did you think when you heard that her father had arrived in Thailand, in Bangkok, and the Thai officials were were helping her helping him connect with her?

We panicked.

She said she doesn't want to see him. She doesn't want to look at him. She might collapse.

Because of all the stress, she didn't eat, she didn't sleep, like, even before she gets to Thailand because she was stressful about what she's doing. 

Qunun, centre, speaks with Thai Immigration Police Chief Surachet Hakparn, right and an unidentified UNHCR officer. (Thailand Immigration Bureau/EFE/EPA)

Now she's in a safe house with UNHCR. 

That was a relief. But we still know that she's still in Thailand and she will still have to be transferred to another country to seek asylum. 

What effect do you think that this has had on women in Saudi Arabia in your support that you're part of?

I'm actually feeling some kind of guilt because her story went viral and I've heard about other women that ... their fathers their brothers, they just took their phone.

It is scary. You know, even when you are trying to support this campaign in Saudi Arabia, you always have to cover your tracks.

But you're here in Canada. We're not going to say where, and we're not saying who are, we're not identifying you. Why are you afraid?

I have my family there in Saudi Arabia. They don't know that I am doing this.

Would you be in danger if it was known that you are trying to help these women?

I was talking to my father when I last visited my family in Saudi.

My father just told me that ... if I'm thinking to just leave Islam and not be a Muslim anymore, that he's going to kill me by himself. And I just got so scared.

When you see your family turns against you just for your beliefs, your ideas — really? I mean, it's something so scary. You don't know who to trust anymore.

Do you think there are other women that you will now be helping in the same way?

Yes, actually through her account when I was searching through the direct messages, there's a lot of other women who asked me to help them.

Do you feel strong enough to mount this resistance that you're now part of? Do you have the strength?

Yes, I will do this to the end of my life, maybe. 

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Associated Press. Interview produced by Jeanne Armstrong. Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.