As It Happens

Escaped Saudi sisters worry their family will hunt them down in Georgia

If Maha and Wafa al-Subaie end up dead, they say they want the world to know what happened to them.

Maha and Wafa al-Subaie say they want the world to know what happened to them if they disappear

Saudi sisters Maha al-Subaie, 28, and Wafa al-Subaie, 25. (@GeorgiaSisters2/Twitter)

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Two sisters who fled Saudi Arabia together say that if they are killed, they want the world to know their story. 

Maha al-Subaie, 28, and Wafa al-Subaie, 25, have been in the nation of Georgia since they fled their home country and their allegedly abusive family nearly a month ago.  

But even as they await the approval of their asylum application, they fear the worst. Georgia is one of a handful of countries that Saudis can travel to without a visa. 

"If my family and government catch up and take us to our country, they will kill us," Wafa told As It Happens host Carol Off. "And we didn't want to [be] killed without the world knowing about us."

Leaving a son behind 

For years, the sisters have been plotting their escape from Saudi Arabia, where they say they face domestic abuse at the hands of their father. 

It began, they say, after Maha got a divorce.

"My family don't support me. And the government [does] not support women who get divorced," she said. 

I know my son [will] understand why we left the country.- Maha  al-Subaie

Leaving her nine-year-old son behind was one of the hardest decisions Maha has ever had to make, she said.

But, ultimately, she says she doesn't want him to grow up seeing her as a victim. 

"I didn't need my son watching my father beat me," Maha said. "I want to be stronger more because in the future I know my son [will] understand why we left the country."

Rahaf Mohammed case stalled plans 

The sisters' escape plans were briefly put on hold in January, they say, when 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed made international headlines after she fled Saudi Arabia and barricaded herself in a Thailand airport hotel. Mohammed has since claimed asylum in Canada

Everybody was talking about Mohammed's story in Saudi Arabia, the sisters said, and they feared it would draw unwanted attention to them. 

Wafa says her father told her that he wished the Saudi government would find Mohammed and kill her like Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident journalist who was assassinated and dismembered in Istanbul last year. 

"In that moment, I am just going to my room ... just to cry because that make me so angry," she said. "I am scared I can't do this anymore because they know what we want, because Rahaf's so, so famous in my country. Everybody know about her."

Rahaf Mohammed waits to give her public statement at the COSTI Corvetti Education Centre in Toronto on Tuesday, January 15, 2019. (Tijana Martin/Canadian Press)

The sisters waited three months for the buzz around Mohammed to die down — then they made their move.

They snatched their father's phone and broke into his Absher account, a Saudi app that allows men to update or withdraw permissions for female relatives to travel abroad.

Saudi Arabia has strict "guardianship" laws that force women to obtain the permission of a male family member to work, marry or travel. 

With the app, they were able get passports and plane tickets to Georgia.

When they arrived on April 1, they got in touch with the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), which put them under protection and helped them apply for asylum. 

But the sisters don't believe they are out of danger yet.

They say they are facing a barrage of anonymous threats and harassment online — especially Twitter, where their account has been repeatedly suspended because of people reporting it en masse. 

What's more, they say there's nothing to stop a relative or the Saudi authorities from hunting them down. 

"We can't go out. Just, we sit here, and we can't live a normal life because we're scared," Waha said. "Everybody knows about us right now. Too many tourists here from Saudi."

The UNHCR did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but a spokesperson told As It Happens earlier this month that "any person requesting international protection in Georgia has access to a fair and effective asylum procedure conducted by the government."

But the sisters say they would like to move to a safe third country — one where it would be harder for their family to follow.

"We are happy because we can sleep finally without violence, without threat, without anybody screaming in our face," Wafa said. "But we can't feel we are safe right now."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview with Maha and Wafa al-Subaie produced by Jeanne Armstrong.