KARACHI: How did an 18-year old Saudi girl become what some hail as the new face of women’s freedom?
Through her Twitter page.
Thousands of refugees file for asylum each year, but few are as celebrated as Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun - who has now, controversially, dropped her last name.
But Rahaf’s new-found fame has not only earned her a huge social media following, it has also won her a ticket to ‘freedom’, and harnessed the platform as a global outcry for help.
Humanitarian groups and international governments took quick action after noticing the Saudi teen’s social media bid for asylum. She was welcomed by Canadian authorities at Toronto’s Pearson International airport on January 12 after her request for asylum was accepted.
Prior to her arrival in Canada, Rahaf spent less than a week in a Bangkok hotel. From there, she posted a series of frantic tweets. The 18-year-old appealed to international rights groups to help her find a safe haven after fleeing her allegedly abusive Saudi family during a trip to Kuwait.
Rahaf claimed that her family would kill her if she returns as they had previously abused her for removing her veil and cutting her hair short.
But, with each tweet for help, the quick-thinking teen’s follower count sky-rocketed. Now that she has found sanctuary in Canada, The Express Tribune looks at the teenager’s highly successful social media campaign.
User @rahaf84427714 account created
Rahaf arrives at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport with the intent to catch a connecting flight to Australia as part of her asylum plans.
Upon arrival, a man, who is now said to have been a Saudi embassy official, asks her for her passport saying he would help her with Thai visa proceedings. But he does not return.
Without a passport, Rahaf is stuck at the airport and is soon detained by Thai officials at a hotel.
Whilst in detention, she opens a Twitter account and stars posting messages in Arabic, saying she had "escaped Kuwait" and that her life would be in danger if she was forced to return to her home country.
At the hotel, Rahaf barricades herself inside the hotel room, refusing to leave until she meets with UN representatives. From her airport hotel, she tweets to her twenty-four followers, “I’m the girl who ran away to Thailand. I’m now in real danger because the Saudi embassy is trying to force me to return.” She shares her personal information along with the hashtag #SaveRahaf
Less than 24 hours later
27, 476 followers
Her appeal breaks the internet and Thai authorities cave into the pressure from social media and give up plans of deporting Rahaf. The original plan was to have Rahaf sent back to her home country, Saudi Arabia
American-Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahaway comes to Rahaf’s rescue and helps her translate the tweets in English.
Rahaf then appeals to the United Nations and countries such as the United States, United Kingdom, Canada and Australia to grant her asylum.
Hours later, UNHCR officials reach out to Rahaf.
Dear Rahaf, my @refugees colleagues are at the airport now and are seeking access to you!— Melissa Fleming 🇺🇳 (@MelissaFleming) January 7, 2019
Rahaf’s friends confirm that she has got her passport back and that they had been tweeting on her behalf.
Canada grants Rahaf asylum. The news is followed by a massive increase in her twitter engagement.
Canadian authorities receive Rahaf at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport.
🇨🇦 — #BREAKING: PM Justin Trudeau confirms Canada has granted asylum to Saudi teen #Rahaf al-Qunun. She is currently en route to #Canada from Thailand and will arrive 11:15 AM ET.@THEBELAAZ #RahafSaved pic.twitter.com/lDRi9KMNFq— Belaaz (@TheBelaaz) January 11, 2019
Voice for everyone
Rahaf Mohammed was reportedly told by Canadian authorities to lie low with less Twitter activity for her own protection. Twitter served as a means to not only provide Rahaf with the freedom of speech but also the freedom of choice that every individual deserves.
Indeed, Rahaf’s social media campaign was one of the most successful of recent times but such activism and shout-outs can also work against you. They can also be life-threatening. While the intention is to get help and attention from like-minded global citizens, such bold measures open you to public criticism and personal attacks.
The social media generation has shown us our voices can be heard, for good or bad, and on a completely different platform. It can reach people in far-away places and nations; it can unite us through cultural differences and give many unheard voices a platform.
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