Teen Ra­haf Mo­hammed al-Qu­nun be­gins life in Canada with hope, ap­pre­hen­sion

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - JILL MA­HONEY TORONTO ANN HUI With files from Robert Fife

For­mer am­bas­sador says giv­ing al-Qu­nun asy­lum was the right thing to do, but could hin­der diplo­matic re­la­tions with Riyadh

An 18-year-old whose ef­fort to es­cape her abu­sive fam­ily in Saudi Ara­bia cap­tured at­ten­tion around the world is re­lieved to be start­ing a new life in Toronto but is ap­pre­hen­sive about the chal­lenges ahead, those help­ing her say.

Ra­haf Mo­hammed al-Qu­nun spent the week­end meet­ing peo­ple she had cor­re­sponded with on­line, get­ting out­fit­ted in win­ter cloth­ing and catch­ing up on sleep, said Mario Calla, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of im­mi­gra­tion set­tle­ment or­ga­ni­za­tion COSTI.

“She’s well. Ex­cited to be here, ap­pre­hen­sive at the same time – so many un­knowns,” he said.

Ms. al-Qu­nun’s ar­rival in Canada ends a har­row­ing jour­ney. Ear­lier this month, while vis­it­ing Kuwait, she fled her fam­ily and flew to Thai­land.

There, the young woman told of­fi­cials she feared her fam­ily would kill her if she re­turned to Saudi Ara­bia.

After Ms. al-Qu­nun was de­nied en­try into Bangkok, she bar­ri­caded her­self in an air­port ho­tel room, where her Twit­ter posts drew global at­ten­tion.

Ms. al-Qu­nun, who has re­nounced Is­lam, is con­cerned about her safety in light of con­tin­ued on­line threats, in­clud­ing from fam­ily mem­bers, said Yas­mine Mo­hammed, a hu­man­rights ac­tivist liv­ing in British Columbia.

“She’s over­whelmed right now, in a bit of a shock go­ing through all of this,” said Ms. Mo­hammed, who is com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the teen on so­cial me­dia.

Ms. al-Qu­nun is stay­ing in tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion ar­ranged by COSTI, which is help­ing her set­tle in Toronto. The or­ga­ni­za­tion has in­creased se­cu­rity and staff ac­com­pany the teen when she goes out, Mr. Calla said.

Ms. al-Qu­nun is ea­ger to find a place to live, en­roll in English classes and pur­sue ed­u­ca­tion, her sup­port­ers say, but is con­cerned about how she will sup­port her­self fi­nan­cially.

Ms. Mo­hammed, along with fel­low ac­tivists En­saf Haidar and Tarek Fatah, or­ga­nized a GoFundMe cam­paign to help Ms. alQu­nun, rais­ing more than $11,000 in less than 24 hours. Ms. Mo­hammed said the teen is “over­whelmed with grat­i­tude.”

Ms. al-Qu­nun will face many chal­lenges, in­clud­ing try­ing to ad­just to be­ing cut off from her fam­ily, said Ms. Mo­hammed, who helps in­di­vid­u­als who have left Is­lam.

“Once all of this hul­la­baloo around her dies down, she’s go­ing to start to feel the weight of that. Right now she’s just all ex­cited with all of the new­ness and all that but it will hit her even­tu­ally,” she said. “I call it a wound that never heals.”

Ms. al-Qu­nun tweeted about her ex­cite­ment shortly be­fore board­ing her Toronto-bound flight.

“I would like to thank you peo­ple for sup­port­ing me and sav­ing [sic] my life,” she wrote. “Truly I have never dreamed of this love and sup­port. You are the spark that would mo­ti­vate me to be a bet­ter per­son.”

After her ar­rival at Toronto’s Pear­son In­ter­na­tional Air­port on Satur­day, Ms. al-Qu­nun was in­tro­duced by For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land as a “brave new Cana­dian.”

Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau an­nounced on Fri­day that at the re­quest of the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees, Canada would grant Ms. alQu­nun asy­lum, adding the coun­try was do­ing it “to stand up for hu­man rights, to stand up for women’s rights around the world.”

Den­nis Ho­rak, a for­mer Cana­dian am­bas­sador to Saudi Ara­bia, said while ac­cept­ing Ms. alQu­nun was the right thing to do, her case will hin­der Canada’s diplo­matic re­la­tions with Saudi Ara­bia.

“It will com­pli­cate, I think, ef­forts to try and re­build the re­la­tion­ship but it’s prob­a­bly man­age­able,” he said.

Mr. Ho­rak said the gov­ern­ment would do well to leave Ms. al-Qu­nun to set­tle into her new life and not “trot her out as a prop in a diplo­matic game.”

In the sum­mer, after Ms. Free­land tweeted con­cerns about so­cial ac­tivists who had been ar­rested in Saudi Ara­bia, the coun­try with­drew its en­voy in Ot­tawa and ex­pelled Mr. Ho­rak, the Cana­dian am­bas­sador. It also sus­pended Saudi state air­line flights to Toronto and pulled out thou­sands of stu­dents and med­i­cal pa­tients from Canada.

Saudi Ara­bia has not yet pub­licly com­mented on Ms. al-Qu­nan’s case. Ms. Free­land did not re­spond when asked re­peat­edly on Satur­day about whether she ex­pects this to fur­ther stoke ten­sions.

In­stead, Ms. Free­land re­it­er­ated the Prime Min­is­ter’s com­ments on the im­por­tance of pro­tect­ing women around the world.

CAR­LOS OS­O­RIO/REUTERS

CAR­LOS OS­O­RIO/REUTERS

Ra­haf Mo­hammed al-Qu­nun ar­rives at Toronto’s Pear­son In­ter­na­tional Air­port on Satur­day after flee­ing her abu­sive fam­ily lo­cated in Saudi Ara­bia.

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