The images are haunting. Two pairs of sisters, side by side, frozen in time with the dead-eyed stare of a passport picture.
These are the only known photographs of four young Saudi women bound together in tragedy after fleeing their homes for a better life and basic freedoms.
Those dreams ended in two separate double-death mysteries in chillingly similar circumstances, half a world apart in the US and Australia.
Tala, 16, (left) and Rotana Farea, 23, (right) had arrived in New York City on September 1, 2018, and maxed out their credit cards staying in luxury hotels
Asra Abdullah Alsehli, 24, (left) and her sister Amaal, 23, (right) were found dead in Sydney’s south-west
In June, the rotting remains of sisters Amaal, 23, and Asra Abdullah Alsehli, 24, were found inside their inner-west Sydney unit, five years after they left Saudi Arabia and sought asylum in Australia.
There were no signs of forced entry, no clear signs of injury, and the cause of death remains undetermined, a lingering unsolved puzzle for police.
Those who saw the pair around their Canterbury apartment building described them as ‘like two little sparrows … scared of something’.
The horrific case has now sparked comparisons with the 2018 double-death tragedy of inseparable Saudi sisters Rotana and Tala Farea, 16,000km away in New York City.
Their bodies were found bizarrely taped to each other when they washed ashore on the city’s Hudson River waterfront after they escaped their homeland for a new life.
Like Amaal and Asra, there was originally no explanation for their deaths.
The Farea sisters were found taped together on the shore of the Hudson River on October 24 2018, with no signs of foul play and no evidence they jumped from a high point
Tala, 16 and Rotana Farea, 23, left Saudi for the US two years earlier, fleeing allegedly abusive relatives to live in a shelter in Virginia while they filed for asylum.
They moved to New York two months before their deaths and lived the high life in five-star luxury hotels like the Hilton, Hyatt and the Knickerbocker.
There they lived off room service – always eating two meals a day together – and occasionally shopping until they maxed out their credit card and the cash ran out.
They were last seen praying in the city’s Riverside Park at 7am after finding out their bid for asylum had failed and they faced having to fly home to Saudi Arabia.
It appears to have proved the final straw. The pair used duct tape to bind themselves together… and threw themselves as one into the Hudson’s killer currents.
On October 24, 2018, their decomposing corpses – still tied together – were found swept onto the rocks of Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
Their deaths mystified the international community – although, unlike Amaal and Asra double tragedy, was determined to be suicide – after a three month inquiry.
‘The tape was not binding them tight together,’ New York Chief of Detectives Dermot Shea said. ‘More like keeping them together.
‘They would rather inflict harm on themselves and commit suicide than return to Saudi Arabia.’
Tala and Rotana Farea were seen praying in a park on New York’s 158th Street, a few kilometres upstream from where their bodies were found on October 24, 2018
A witness told police of the haunting final scene of the sisters quietly praying before their tragic end.
‘He described them as alone, just the two of them,’ Shea said. ‘They were sitting 30 feet apart, but he believed they were together.
‘They were sitting with their heads in their hands, their heads lowered and making noises loudly that he describes as praying.’
Detectives unearthed allegations that the pair had been abused by their Saudi mother, father and brother before escaping in the hope of a new life in New York.
‘This is not corroborated at this time from us but there are reports of abuse that had been brought to our attention,’ added Shea.
‘This is in another jurisdiction, and this is some time in the past.’
A three-month inquiry concluded the deaths were a tragic double suicide. The pair drowned with no other injuries but also no sign of them plunging into the water.
It’s believed they may have walked gently together into the river’s powerful flow before it swept them away in their final deadly embrace.
Their bodies were found 5km downstream from where they were last seen.
‘The death of the Farea sisters was the result of suicide, in which the young women bound themselves together before descending into the Hudson River,’ New York medical examiner Barbara Sampson said in January 2019.
The tragedy echoes the sad end of Amaal, 23, and Asra, 24, in Sydney – although the circumstances of their deaths may not be the same.
Like the Fareas, the Alsehlis were inseparable and reclusive and begged for asylum and discovered dead together in mysterious circumstances.
Police believe the two young women, found in separate beds, may have been dead for a month at their Canterbury unit before officers made the grim discovery.
Investigators believe the women died in May, around the time they stopped paying their $500 per week rent.
Detectives say they are open to ‘all lines of inquiry’.
When they arrived in Sydney, Asra and Amaal Alsehli made contact with a refugee agency. Pictured: Their Canterbury apartment block, where they were found dead in June
UNSOLVED MYSTERIES OF SYDNEY’S SAUDI SISTERS
– May have fled Saudi Arabia as teens.
– Had access to money and drove a BMW.
– Both had Australian business names, but police can’t confirm what they did for work.
– Filed an AVO, and then withdrew it.
– BMW was keyed.
– Three police welfare checks.
– Stopped paying rent.
– Bodies found a month after they died.
– Cause of death unknown.
The coroner has not released the bodies of the sisters to their family, although it is understood they could be buried in Sydney.
Police are to yet rule out homicide or suicide as investigations continue, hampered by the family blocking the release of the only two available pictures of the women.
The coroner finally overruled the family’s wishes and released the passport photographs last week, revealing the dead women’s faces publicly for the first time.
Eight weeks on from the grisly discovery, the case is still plagued with mysteries and inconsistencies.
Both women registered ABNs in 2018 for sole trading to a Wetherill Park address, in Sydney’s west, but police still can’t confirm what they did for work.
They also drove a black BMW coupe which normally costs upwards of $38,000, and lived in a modern, two-bedroom $490-per-week apartment.
The sisters’ car was also keyed in late 2021, but is unknown whether it was a coincidence or whoever damaged their property had malicious intent.
The women regularly went to the local service station for coffee and energy drinks with workers describing them as ‘cheerful’ – but they noted the pair would only respond to questions and never started a conversation.
A black BMW coupe covered in dust was removed from the garage of the apartment block the day after the women’s bodies were found
There were also three welfare checks carried out by police in the months before the girls were finally discovered in separate beds of their first-floor unit as mail piled up outside their door.
Asra applied for an apprehended violence order against a 28-year-old man in 2019 but later withdrew the application.
Lead Detective Inspector Claudia Allcroft insisted there was ‘nothing to suggest’ their family was involved in their deaths.
Daily Mail Australia revealed on Monday that the pair had reporting seeing a ‘suspicious’ man lurking between two cars, out the front of their home, in the months prior to their death.
But after investigations, it was not confirmed if the figure was suspicious – or whether the young women may have been jumping at shadows.
The women were not known to be part of any dissident Saudi networks.
The mysterious deaths have made waves on social media, with many Middle Eastern locals asking why the sisters felt the need to escape the Saudi Kingdom.
One man said the women exposed themselves to danger when they left their homeland: ‘Do not leave Saudi Arabia in search of freedom. You will not find it.’
TIMELINE BEHIND THE SYDNEY’S SAUDI SISTERS MYSTERY
2017: Asra Abdullah Alsehli, 24, and Amaal Abdullah Alsehli, 23, are believed to have left Saudi Arabia and arrived in Australia, where they sought asylum
2019: Asra took an AVO out against a man, but it was later dismissed.
2020: They frequently visited a service station around their flat, with locals describing them as ‘friendly’.
2022: Asra and Amaal report a ‘suspicious’ figure to building management. But it is not clear whether they were jumping at shadows.
Police conducted two welfare checks early in the year.
In one of the checks, the pair were described as ‘timid’ and refused to let anyone enter the apartment.
They eventually allowed officers to enter, but stayed huddled together in the far corner of the unit.
May, 2022: The owner of their Canterbury unit filed a civil case against Asra on May 13.
That action was taken four weeks after sheriff’s officers went to the apartment to serve the women with an eviction notice.
June 7, 2022: Officers conducting a welfare check made the grisly discovery. There was no sign of forced entry.
Police believe the sisters died in May, but have not been able to determine a cause of death.
Late July 2022: The NSW state coroner overrules the family’s wishes and releases pictures of the dead sisters, as police plead for more information