Four Americans were living thousands of miles apart and were strangers to each other, having only crossed paths at international peace conferences. But, in March 2015, a desperate message on Facebook had them joining forces online—through Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp and Twitter—to save a man’s life.
That man is Mohammed Al Samawi, a Muslim who, in 2015, was targeted with death threats from extremists in Yemen for his interfaith peace work with Jews and Christians. As civil war erupted in the streets, Al Samawi hid in the small bathroom of his apartment in the coastal city of Aden, waiting to die.
“In that bathroom, as I worshipped Allah, I prayed he would save me,” Al Samawi, now 31, tells PEOPLE in an interview for this week’s issue issue. With dwindling food and water, no electricity and a dying cell-phone battery, and Al Qaeda fighters at his door, prayer—and Facebook—were his only hopes.
He tapped out a desperate appeal to everyone he knew on Facebook: “Can you help me at all?”
Half a world away, New York City bioengineer Daniel Pincus, 39; San Francisco social entrepreneur Justin Hefter, 29; and humanitarian activists Megan Hallahan, 38 and Natasha Westheimer, 27, then based in Israel, separately hit “reply.”
“And just like that, my own personal Justice League came together,” Al Samawi writes in his new memoir of the ordeal, The Fox Hunt (which is already being made into a movie by La La Land producer Marc Platt).
For more on Al Samawi’s dramatic escape and the work of the Americans who made it possible, pick up the new issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.
The four strangers spent the next 13 days working every contact and friend-of-a-friend they had around the world, eventually coordinating as team over Skype and improbably shepherding Al Samawi through a harrowing escape to the United States.
Says Hefter: “The news today is about the destructive power of social media. But those same tools can be used to bring people together.”
Al Samawi, who was granted asylum in the United States last year and is now living in Miami, maintains a close bond with Hefter, Hallahan, Pincus and Westheimer. “They are like family,” he says, recalling vividly the hope they gave him as he hid in that bathroom. “These four people came, like angels — an answer from God.”