January 11, 2019 08:46 AM

It was early last Saturday when Saudi Arabian teenager Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun crept past her vacationing family as they slept in their Kuwait hotel room, slipped outside and got into a taxi bound — she hoped — for a new life.

Rahaf, 18, was not alone as she left: On her cell phone she spoke furtively with a friend who had already successfully fled their native kingdom.

“She was scared,” that friend, a 19-year-old woman named Shahad, tells PEOPLE. “Rahaf had the feeling that you don’t know what is going to happen to your life, good or bad. It was a matter of life and death.”

Rahaf was in danger both from Saudi officials and from her own family, says Shahad, who escaped two years ago and has established a new life under an assumed identity in Sweden.

“She skipped Saudi Arabia because her family locked her up in her room for six months,” Shahad says. The alleged offense was that she had cut her own hair.

Rahaf’s story is one of many, according to humanitarian observers: Saudi Arabia, a monarchy whose society is intimately bound up with an extremely conservative branch of Islam, places severe restrictions on its women and girls.

“Women live under male guardianship, where a male relative has control over virtually every aspect of their lives,” says Sarah Leah Whitson, an official with Human Rights Watch, a New York-based international advocacy group. “Women have been jailed for things like marrying without permission.”

 

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Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun (center) in the Bangkok airport
THAI IMMIGRATION BUREAU HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Had she tried to flee from Saudi Arabia, Rahaf would have required the permission of a “male guardian,” even at 18. But she waited until her family was in Kuwait.

“She had to get away, like I did,” says Shahad, who spoke with PEOPLE via encrypted communication.

That night last week, under the cloak of a sunless moon, Rahaf boarded the first of two flights on a cross-continental journey to seek asylum in Australia, where she reportedly already had a tourist visa. But she miscalculated one key element, Shahad says.

“She wanted to stay two days in Thailand,” says the friend who has known Rahaf since they both lived in Saudi Arabia.

Shahad and other escapees who were coaching her during her flight advised her to stay inside the airport in Bangkok and to proceed directly to the departure lounge for her connecting flight. “We friends said, ‘No, Thailand is not a safe country,’ ” Shahad says. (As the New York Times has noted, “Thailand has a history of sending refugees back to autocratic countries.”)

Shahad says, “She did not listen to us because she thought there was no Saudi embassy in Thailand. She was wrong. When she tried to get a visa to Thailand, the trouble started.”

A man who apparently claimed he would help obtain the necessary visa reportedly instead took Rahaf’s passport and plane ticket to Australia. According to the Times, he returned with others who said that her family wanted her back and had reported her missing.

The exact details of the incident are disputed: a Saudi ambassador initially said Rahaf had broken the law in Thailand but later country officials described her case as a “family affair” in which they were uninvolved, according to PBS and the Times; a Thai immigration official, however, said that Rahaf didn’t have the money or paperwork needed to travel.

What quickly became clear was that Rahaf had set off an international incident, in limbo in the Bangkok airport and subject to deportation to Saudi Arabia — but refusing to go quietly.

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun (second from left)
THAI IMMIGRATION BUREAU HANDOUT/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

In a newly established Twitter profile, she posted that she was being followed by Saudi agents. Thai authorities placed her inside a transit hotel room to await being placed on a flight to Kuwait.

Within days, Rahaf garnered nearly 130,000 followers. Though her social media photos depicted an everyday teen, snapping selfies sporting various filters such as animal noses or color washes, her messages to the world were grave.

“Mona I am scared,” Rahaf tweeted to a new online friend. “There are just a few hours left. I swear they will kill me at the airport if they return me to Saudi.”

In an interview with the Times, she described the abuse in her family, including the six months she spent locked up. She said her home country was “like a prison.”

“I can’t make my own decisions,” she told the Times. “Even about my own hair I can’t make decisions.”

“They will kill me because I fled and because I announced my atheism,” she said of her family. “They wanted me to pray and to wear a veil, and I didn’t want to.”

Online, Rahaf begged for help from all corners of the world — the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia.

“Please contact us!” she wrote on Sunday.

That same day, she sent additional SOS messages and a plea for asylum: “based on the 1951 Convention and the 1967 Protocol, I’m rahaf mohammed /sic/, formally seeking a refugee status to any country that would protect me from getting harmed or killed due to leaving my religion and torture from my family.”

Representatives from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia did not respond to questions from PEOPLE. The teen’s father and brother went to Bangkok to see Rahaf but she would not meet with them, according to PBS. It appears her family has not publicly commented on her allegations of abuse.

“The unique thing about this case is that she had access to social media, and was able to report on it and bring the world’s attention to her plight,” Elaine Pearson, with Human Rights Watch, told PBS. “I think there are many cases like this that go unreported.”

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During her the standoff at the airport, Rahaf barricaded herself inside her hotel holding room, propping a mattress and a table against the door. She was afraid to eat or drink. “I think they are trying to get me to eat the food to drug /roofie me to ship me back to Kuwait,” she tweeted on Monday. (Her account has since been taken offline.)

Followers around the world voiced their support, concern and encouragement, as well as contact information for various agencies that could help. Their chorus reached the Switzerland-based United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. From there came some relief.

“The UNHCR has referred Ms. Rahaf Mohammed Al-Qunun to Australia for consideration for refugee resettlement,” a spokesperson from Australia’s Department of Home Affairs wrote in a statement to PEOPLE. “The Department of Home Affairs will consider this referral in the usual way, as it does with all UNHCR referrals.”

Now, says Human Rights Watch’s Whitson, Rahaf is in good hands.

“She is obviously very brave and determined and resilient,” Whitson says. “She was put in an impossible position. She had no recourse but to flee. She is under the protection of the UNHCR staff, so she is safe.”

“She is very happy now,” says friend Shahad. “Everything is going to be okay.”

Shahad plans to visit her resettled friend as soon as she can. In the meantime, she is proud that she and other women were able to coach Rahaf to freedom.

Says Shahad: “I helped her because it is the right thing to do.”

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