Two Saudi sisters who have been hiding in Turkey for the past six weeks say they’re hoping Canada will accept them as refugees before their allegedly abusive father finds them and forces them to return to Saudi Arabia.
Dua and Dalal al-Showaiki have been living in Istanbul since June 10, when the two young women ran away from a family vacation, clutching only their mobile phones. Since then, they’ve been moving from location to location every few days for fear their father, who they say is politically well-connected, will find them.
The sisters are hoping to follow the trail blazed by Rahaf Mohammed, the Saudi teenager who was granted asylum in Canada earlier this year after fleeing her family and barricading herself in a Bangkok hotel room for a week. Canada is increasingly the safe haven of choice for Saudi dissidents. The country received 191 new asylum seekers last year, nearly double the number who arrived in the second-most popular destination, the United States, previously the top destination for Saudis fleeing the regime.
Returning to Saudi Arabia is something Dua and Dalal are desperate to avoid. The two grew up in an ultrareligious Muslim household in the port city of Jeddah. They say they were victimized by an abusive and controlling father, who forced them to don the niqab when they turned 11 years old. (A request for comment from the Saudi embassy in Ottawa was not returned.)
The sisters’ futures looked equally grim, with their father pushing them to give up their dreams of higher education and professional careers in order to marry older, religious men.
"Our family was always beating us, and the law in Saudi Arabia doesn’t protect us,” the 20-year-old Dalal wrote during a lengthy WhatsApp exchange with The Globe from the sisters’ latest safe house. “In Saudi Arabia, we can’t work or study without the permission from my father. The girl should get married and have children just staying at home, if I did something they don’t like they beat us. I can’t go out of my home – even if I want to go to the supermarket they beat me, if I run away from my home they gonna tell the police and they gonna put me in jail, because it’s a crime.”
Such a fate would arguably have been even worse for 22-year-old Dua, who realized as a preteen that she was gay – something considered a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia.
Though Dua was never prosecuted, she says her sexuality became an open secret after she used her Twitter account to support LGBTQ causes, something that got her expelled from Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University earlier this year. (Dua posted a screenshot on her Twitter account that appeared to show the university banning her from study for the next 80 years.)
“Since I was 17, I wanted to become a lawyer, and in my university I had high grades, but they kicked me out, because I’m a gay and because of my short hair,” Dua said in a WhatsApp exchange – the sisters’ preferred mode of communication – peppered with anxiety, enthusiasm and the occasional emoji.
Dua – who shaves her head at the sides, leaving only a crop of dark hair on top – is the more gregarious of the sisters, more comfortable in English than the slightly shyer Dalal, an aspiring child psychologist who wears her hair long and dyed auburn.
Life on the run has been at different times frustrating, liberating and terrifying. Their initial plan to fly from Istanbul to Britain was thwarted when their father found out about it and seized their passports and money. Despondent, the two women decided to run away anyway.
They waited until their father went into the washroom then made a dash for it, running into the streets of Turkey’s largest city with only their mobile phones.
They reached out to a Saudi dissident on Twitter, who told them he would send a taxi for them and bring them to a safe place. But they were warned the dissident was a false friend – someone willing to tell their father where they were if he was paid – so they turned to another Saudi dissident who sent money to pay for the first of a series of anonymous addresses they’ve lived in since then.
They’ve been on the move ever since; they’re now on their 11th safe house since June 10. They spend most of their time indoors and out-of-sight, listening to music and trying to ignore the hate directed their way on social media – most of it from supporters of Saudi Arabia who accuse the women of inventing their stories of abuse in order to “distort the image of the kingdom.”
The sisters say they feel unsafe in Istanbul, a city with a large Arab population. Journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a critic of the Saudi royal family, was killed and dismembered inside the Saudi consulate in the city last year.
“I can’t stay more than five days in any place, it’s not safe,” Dua says. “We can’t trust anyone … the day before yesterday, I ordered food and there’s a couple of [delivery] guys, I don’t know them, they told me ‘you are from Saudi Arabia, you want to do like what Rahaf [Mohammed] did!’ So now I’m afraid to just order food.”
Ms. Mohammed’s story isn’t the reason the sisters decided to flee their family, but it is part of why they’ve focused their hopes on Canada. “According to what I saw and heard, [abused women] have strong protection” in Canada, Dua wrote. “All I care about is full protection.”
The recent increase in Saudi nationals fleeing to Canada coincides with the rise of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has overseen some showpiece expansions of women’s rights – women are now allowed to drive and to access some government services without the permission of a male guardian – while also cracking down on dissent, including the jailing of prominent women’s rights activists.
Canada’s relationship with the ultraconservative kingdom has plunged over the same time frame, with Riyadh expelling the Canadian ambassador last year – and suspending all new trade deals – after Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland called on Saudi Arabia to release jailed civil society and women’s rights activists.
Toby Cadman, a British lawyer who has been advising Dua and Dalal, said the sisters had formally applied for resettlement via the United Nations High Commission for Refugees. He said he was in contact with the Canadian government and at least one European government about the case, but he couldn’t discuss details.
“At this stage, due to the ongoing threat posed to the sisters, we are willing to accept any country coming forward where they will be safe and allowed to live a normal life,” said Mr. Cadman, who also advised Ms. Mohammed through her ordeal.
Mathieu Genest, a spokesman for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, said the department could not comment on Dua and Dalal’s hope of finding asylum in Canada. “The UNHCR determines which cases to refer to Canada and will request expedited processing when appropriate,” Mr. Genest wrote in an e-mail.
In the meantime, the sisters moved again on Friday to another “safe” house – in a city that, to them, feels anything but secure.