Craig Foster’s time as a leader in the #savehakeem campaign contains important lessons on the power of public and private advocacy, and on the ways they interact.
A young man you don’t know is arrested on another continent. While you are in a position to do something about it, nobody expects that of you. In fact, if you did nothing nobody would notice. And if you did nothing but send out a tweet people would commend you.
But you do a lot more than tweet. You so ardently commit yourself to his cause that you find yourself sweating in the high humidity and heat of a crowded corridor that leads to a Thai courtroom watching the man, who is in chains, and shouting your support with more emotion than you’ve ever felt in your life. “Your wife sends her love, Hakeem! Australia is with you. Stay strong, Hakeem!”
This is the story of Craig Foster, former Socceroo captain and Australian Professional Footballers’ Association executive, and current sports analyst for SBS. The man in chains is Bahraini national and new Australian citizen Hakeem Al-Araibi.
HRM spoke to Foster about his efforts and his book that details them, Fighting for Hakeem. The conversation focused on the two different sides to his advocacy – the public messaging and the private negotiations. It became clear that this dynamic is reflective of most advocacy efforts, whether they be in politics and the media, or in a workplace.
Someone is in trouble
Al-Araibi’s troubles with the Bahraini government date back to 2010 when the police came looking for his brother Emad in relation to participation in anti-government protests. They couldn’t find Emad, so they took Hakeem instead. He was released after three months but arrested again in 2012 for allegedly being in a group of people who attacked a police station.
Hakeem says he was playing a televised football match on the other side of the city at the time, but the police didn’t care about his alibi. He was tortured and released, and the trial went on, until he was convicted in absentia while travelling with the national football team in Qatar.
Terrified for his life, he spent the next four months making his way to Australia. Here, he started anew in Melbourne, becoming a semi-profesional football player.
In 2016, he felt safe enough to speak about his experiences in Bahrain. Then in November 2018, he and his wife went on a belated honeymoon to Thailand, where he was detained on the basis of an Interpol ‘red notice’ which should have been cancelled.
Foster describes his decision to help as “incremental” but quick. “There was a moment when I realised that he wasn’t going to get out. There was a moment I felt he was going to die.
“I sat my wife down at one point and said, we need to go and save him. She asked, ‘Why you?’ And I said, ‘Well, who else?’”
You can see Foster’s logic. He had a platform, 40 years of football and human rights contacts and he was even about to finish a degree in international law. And those are just qualifications, not motivation.
“He is a football player, he’d been tortured, he was a refugee and he was being victimized by powerful forces. They’re four things that I feel extremely strongly about.”
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The public battle
So how can you apply Foster’s tactics to your organisation? He says the first step to is to get some noise early and build momentum. He reached out to people who had significant platforms and a passion for social causes.
The second step was dispersion. You need the people you’ve persuaded to persuade others. Part of this is being a certain kind of leader, he says.
“The key to any campaign is that it can’t be built on one person. It’s why I’ve been at pains to say that there were huge amounts of wonderful people working for us, because people have to own the campaign themselves.
“A natural part of leadership is to let people own the initiative, let them drive it and let them get credit for it. Half my day was just giving people suggestions to drive their advocacy. For example, if it was a student, I’d say, ‘Well done and fantastic work, why don’t you go and speak to your student body?’ If it was an actor, I’d say, ‘Wonderful work, how about you organise a video with a bunch of colleagues, or get one of your directors to do something?’”
At the campaign’s height it was trending in 81 countries and reached over 30 million people. It had the support of both local and international footballers, including the Socceroos, the Matildas, and Premier League legends such as Didier Drogba.
There was support across the Australian political spectrum, and the prime minister was personally intervening. Foster even went to FIFA’s headquarters in Zurich to present a petition with 50,000 signatures calling for Al-Araibi’s release.
One of the thornier aspects of #savehakeem would be familiar to anyone that has undertaken an initiative to help a minority group. “Many people in the NGO space, including me, from time to time feel immense amounts of guilt because you have to make choices about where you direct your attention.”
The stakes aren’t the same but similar objections are raised against organisational diversity initiatives. Critics ask questions like, why is the focus on gender when the company could do a lot more to be inclusive of other ethnicities? Foster’s answer to this line of questioning – which he got from people who wondered why he was helping this particular refugee, and not those affected by offshore detention – is interesting.
“I would say to them privately, ‘I completely agree with you. But let’s save this kid first and then I give you my undertaking that I will then try and translate that goodwill across to them.’”
Foster kept this promise, and is right now heading up Game Over, a movement to get those still negatively affected by Australia’s offshore detention regime to safety.
The private war
The difference between public and private positions can sometimes be vast. In workplaces, someone who might be open to an initiative when you speak to them separately may balk at the idea if you bring it up in front of their team.
This was a dynamic Foster encountered during the #savehakeem campaign. For example, some Australian politicians gave private support but wanted more to happen before they supported it publicly.
“Every politician understands the importance of advocacy. In fact, quite often politicians will say to social activists, ‘You need to speak to these people so that they can then come to me and demand that I act in this way.’ In other words, advocacy and pressure open space for politicians to be able to do their work to the maximum level.”
You can see the tension it creates. How far is too far? How do you reassure someone you know on your side in private, but is afraid to speak out?
“I would explain to them, ‘You need to understand that I’m going to be strong publicly but firstly, this is non-partisan. And secondly, I won’t attack you, but I will be advocating for you to act to the limit of your powers.’ It was the discussion of reasonable openness, transparency and ultimately through that we were able to build trust.”
Another interesting dynamic that is replicated in workplaces is the difference between what you do, and what the team you are in charge of do. Foster wasn’t just a public advocate; he was leading a media team of which he is not the public face.
“If I needed a more vociferous message towards a Minister or the Government, I could then have my social media team advocate on that basis – a more extreme basis, if you like. And I [personally] could take the more moderate message publicly.”
While you can’t fully control something once it has gone viral, Foster’s social media team of about 10-12 people, who he says were working about 15 hours a day, made sure their messaging was tailored to the moment.
“I was privy to the latest information much of which couldn’t be made public and therefore I could use that to shape messages for them to push certain buttons, push certain politicians, parties, countries, organisations. And by doing that we were able to keep the campaign on track and shape it in a way that was advantageous.”
This was crucial towards the end of the campaign when Foster got word from the Australian government that a deal for Al-Araibi’s release was on the table. He told the team to quieten the messaging down so as to not disrupt the private negotiations and make the right decision easier.
In the end, it was worth it. In February 2019, the Thai Office of the Attorney-General announced that the extradition case against Al-Araibi had been dropped at Bahrain’s request. No reason was given.
He was placed on a flight to Melbourne the very next day and welcomed by a huge crowd. He gained Australian citizenship a month later.
A feel-good story
The full tale of Al-Araibi’s life as a refugee and prisoner is worth hearing in full. But a lingering, immediate question you might have is why Foster acted. He had motivation, but how did he come to care about these issues? His answer could serve as a template for anyone.
“I transitioned naturally. And this is a process every athlete can go through and I like to think will go through. You go from lending your brand and your face to a cause or program, to then actually meeting the people working inside and understanding deeper issues. The third element is to start to advocating for them.”
Meeting with people from different backgrounds – that could be in your workplace through an internship or diverse recruitment program – makes the political personal. That feeling often doesn’t stop at that person alone.
Al-Araibi is a refugee with a feel-good story. But there are others like him who are not so lucky. Foster talks about three-time Pakistani kick-boxing champion Ezatullah Kakar as someone whose story mirrors Al-araibi’s.
“They are almost the same age, Ezatullah was persecuted in Pakistan, Hakeem was persecuted in Bahrain, they both fled. Hakeem had the good fortune to come by plane, and when he arrived at immigration he didn’t say he was going to seek asylum. He had a friend here who had sought asylum and so he knew how to come in and then seek asylum. Whereas Ezatullah simply came by boat. There’s absolutely no difference between the two.”
It’s hard not to feel inspired by Foster’s passion. What sticks the most is his insistence that even small things matter, and there is no reason you can’t try and do the right thing.
“By taking any action you make a difference and you are important. Even signing a petition is important because I’ve been in that position where I’ve handed them over, so I know the power of just one petition and getting a friend to sign. It is immense. People often think that it’s nothing. No, it’s significant.
“Do the right thing. Step forward. Don’t think that any problem is too big to solve, it’s not. Because we can all solve it together. I mean, this is a great example. Three governments and two royal families eventually had to capitulate to the public advocacy of hundreds of thousands of Australians and millions of people.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2020 edition of HRM magazine.