Saudi teen flee­ing abuse ‘very, very happy’ to be in new home

18-year-old greeted by for­eign af­fairs min­is­ter in Toronto

Times Colonist - - Canada - ALANNA RIZZA and MICHELLE MC­QUIGGE

TORONTO — A Saudi teen de­scribed as a “brave new Cana­dian” by an of­fi­cial from the gov­ern­ment that granted her refugee sta­tus as she fled her al­legedly abu­sive fam­ily is en route to her new home, Canada’s For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter said Satur­day.

Chrys­tia Free­land ap­peared along­side 18-year-old Ra­haf Mo­hammed Alqu­nun with her arm around the teen as she ap­peared briefly at Toronto’s Pear­son In­ter­na­tional Air­port.

Alqu­nun, fresh off a flight from Seoul, South Ko­rea, and sport­ing a grey “Canada” hoodie and a blue hat em­bla­zoned with the logo of the or­ga­ni­za­tion that ar­ranged her re­set­tle­ment, smiled and waved at a group of re­porters, but of­fered no com­ment on her ar­rival.

Free­land, how­ever, heaped praise on the young woman who shot to fame through her so­cial me­dia cam­paign to flee her fam­ily.

“It was a plea­sure for me this morn­ing to wel­come to her new home a very brave new Cana­dian,” Free­land said.

“She wanted Cana­di­ans to see that she’s here, that she’s well, and that she’s very, very happy to be in her new home, al­though she did com­ment to me about the cold.”

“It does get warmer,” Free­land said she told her.

She was off to get win­ter clothes, said Mario Calla, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of COSTI Im­mi­grant Ser­vices, which is help­ing her set­tle in tem­po­rary hous­ing and ap­ply for a health card.

Calla said Alqu­nun has friends in Toronto that she will be meet­ing up with this week­end.

Alqu­nun gained in­ter­na­tional promi­nence when she fled her fam­ily last week while vis­it­ing Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, where she bar­ri­caded her­self in an air­port ho­tel and launched a Twit­ter cam­paign out­lin­ing al­le­ga­tions of abuse against her rel­a­tives.

Alqu­nun said her fa­ther phys­i­cally abused her and tried to force her into an ar­ranged mar­riage.

Her fa­ther, who ar­rived in Bangkok not long be­fore she left, has de­nied those al­le­ga­tions.

“I’m the girl who ran away to Thai­land. I’m now in real dan­ger be­cause the Saudi Em­bassy is try­ing to force me to re­turn,” said an English trans­la­tion of one of her first posts to Twit­ter. Alqu­nun also wrote that she was afraid and that her fam­ily would kill her if she were re­turned home. The Twit­ter hash­tag #SaveRa­haf en­sued, and a pho­to­graph of her be­hind a door bar­ri­caded with a mat­tress was seen around the world.

Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau an­nounced Fri­day that the United Na­tions High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees asked the fed­eral gov­ern­ment to al­low Alqu­nun to set­tle in Canada, and Ot­tawa agreed.

“That is some­thing that we are pleased to do be­cause Canada is a coun­try that un­der­stands how im­por­tant it is to stand up for hu­man rights, to stand up for women’s rights around the world,” Trudeau said.

The UNHCR said Alqu­nun’s plight has cap­tured the world’s at­ten­tion and pro­vided a glimpse into the sit­u­a­tion of refugees world­wide.

Spokes­woman Lau­ren La Rose praised Canada’s will­ing­ness to step up and as­sist in this case, but noted that Alqu­nun’s sit­u­a­tion high­lights a need for more in­ter­ven­tions around the world.

“Canada has been a great ally and leader in this area, but there needs to be more spa­ces so that women and girls or any­one that is vul­ner­a­ble can find a safe third coun­try to re­set­tle in,” La Rose said.

Calla said there might be an in­crease in asy­lum seek­ers us­ing so­cial me­dia as a tool to reach out to gov­ern­ments and agen­cies to make their case for be­ing granted asy­lum.

“There are many, many peo­ple in des­per­ate sit­u­a­tions — des­per­ate in the sense that their lives are in dan­ger. They will do any­thing to get out of those sit­u­a­tions to safety so it may be a tool that some will use,” he said.

The move to ac­cept Alqu­nun could heighten ten­sions be­tween Canada and Saudi Ara­bia. In Au­gust, Saudi Crown Prince Mo­hammed bin Sal­man ex­pelled Canada’s am­bas­sador and with­drew his own en­voy af­ter Free­land used Twit­ter to call for the re­lease of women’s rights ac­tivists who had been ar­rested in the coun­try.

The Saudis also sold Cana­dian in­vest­ments and re­called their stu­dents from uni­ver­si­ties in Canada.

But Trudeau ap­peared un­fazed by the pos­si­bil­ity that the move could have ill ef­fects, re­peat­ing that Canada stands up for hu­man rights re­gard­less of diplo­matic con­se­quences.

“This is part of a long tra­di­tion of Canada en­gag­ing con­struc­tively and pos­i­tively in the world and work­ing with our part­ners, al­lies and with the United Na­tions,” he said.

At least one ob­server of Mid­dle East pol­i­tics pre­dicted min­i­mal fall­out from Canada’s de­ci­sion to wel­come Alqu­nun.

Bessma Mo­mani, a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Water­loo and an­a­lyst of Mid­dle Eastern in­ter­na­tional af­fairs, said the re­la­tion­ship with the Saudi gov­ern­ment has de­te­ri­o­rated to the point where such ac­tions pose lit­tle po­lit­i­cal risk.

Mo­mani said Saudi Ara­bia could the­o­ret­i­cally pur­sue stiffer mea­sures, such as im­pos­ing full sanc­tions or shut­ting down the Cana­dian em­bassy en­tirely, but said the ex­ist­ing mea­sures have al­ready achieved vir­tu­ally the same ef­fect.

Sanc­tion­ing Alqu­nun’s re­set­tle­ment and ap­pear­ing to stand on prin­ci­ple, more­over, could bol­ster Trudeau’s im­age do­mes­ti­cally at a time when he’s un­der fire from the left and the right on such is­sues as im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy and Indige­nous re­la­tions, she added.

“There are a lot of gulf coun­tries that you could … poke in the eye,” she said. “This one’s al­ready in such an abysmal state of re­la­tions that there’s no real po­lit­i­cal or diplo­matic harm to do.”

Ra­haf Mo­hammed Alqu­nun ar­rives at Toronto Pear­son In­ter­na­tional Air­port on Satur­day.

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