Saudi teen settles in Canada
A“VERY, very happy” Saudi teenager who caused a sensation by defying her family and seeking asylum abroad was welcomed with open arms in Toronto on Saturday at the end of a dramatic but exhausting international odyssey.
Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland greeted Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun after she landed in Toronto, wearing a skirt, a grey hoodie emblazoned in red with the word “CANADA” and a blue cap with the logo of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).
Smiling broadly, the 18 year old posed for photographers with Freeland at her side, but made no statement.
Later, she tweeted a video of her arrival, with the comment: “I love Canada I love you all.”
Freeland said Qunun “wanted Canadians to see that she’s here, that she’s well and that she is very, very happy to be in her new home”.
“She had a prett y long journey and is ex hausted and prefers not to ta ke questions for the moment,” the diplomatic chief added, with an arm around Qunun’s shoulder.
She was taken in by Toronto-based refugee group Costi, a spokeswoman said.
Shortly after her arrival, Qunun went shopping for some warm clothes in central Ontario, according to the spokesman.
In the coming days, Costi representatives will help her open a bank account and perform various administrative tasks before finding her a permanent home.
In the meantime, she is staying in a facility constantly under guard. Costi has recommended Qunun that she avoid sharing her address.
A trail of tweets
Qunun captured the world’s attention with a trail of Twitter posts that ignited a #SaveRahaf movement as she fled what she said was physical and psychological abuse from her family in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.
Rights groups a lso said she had renounced Islam, risking prosecution in Saudi Arabia. Her family has denied the abuse allegations.
The publicity thwarted an attempt to deport her to Saudi Arabia after she arrived in Bangkok on a flight from Kuwait a week ago, with Thai authorities instead turning her over to the UN’s refugee agency.
Then on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the surprise announcement that Canada would welcome her.
Freeland said that in granting Qunun asylum, Canada was “standing up for human rights around the world, and we believe very strongly that women’s rights are human rights”.
The move is sure to further strain Canada’s relations with the kingdom. Ties went sideways last August over Ottawa’s rights criticism of Saudi Arabia, prompting Riyadh to expel the Canadian ambassador and sever all trade and investment ties in protest.
Qunun’s attempt to flee Saudi Arabia was embraced by rights groups as a beacon of defiance against repression.
“Ms al-Qunun’s plight has captured the world’s attention over the past few days, providing a glimpse into the precarious situation of millions of refugees worldwide,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Qunun first said she was aiming for Australia. But late on Friday, Thailand’s immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn said a smiling and cheerful Rahaf was bound for Toronto.
“The only country that really helped me in the end was Canada,” Qunun said after arriving in Toronto. “The rest were afraid and cowards.”
In a tweet, the UNHCR said: “We welcome Rahaf’s arrival in Canada and the Canadian Government’s decision to provide protection and a long-term solution for her there as a resettled refugee.”
On Friday, Qunun posted a cryptic tweet on her profile saying: “I have some good news and some bad news.” Her account was deactivated shortly afterward in response to death threats she had faced, her friends said.
But she was back online later in the day, tweeting: “I would like to thank you people for supporting me and saving my life.”