Woman who fled Saudi Ara­bia reaches her new home in Canada

The Trentonian (Trenton, NJ) - - OBITUARIES - By Rob Gil­lies

TORONTO >> Tired but smil­ing, an 18-year-old Saudi woman who said she feared death if de­ported back home ar­rived Sat­ur­day in Canada, which of­fered her asy­lum in a case that at­tracted global at­ten­tion after she mounted a so­cial me­dia cam­paign.

“This is Ra­haf Alqu­nun, a very brave new Cana­dian,” For­eign Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land said arm-in-arm with the Saudi woman in Toronto’s air­port.

Ra­haf Mo­hammed Alqu­nun smiled broadly as she ex­ited an air­port ar­rival door sport­ing a Canada zip­per hoodie and a U.N. High Com­mis­sioner for Refugees hat, cap­ping a dra­matic week that saw her flee her fam­ily while vis­it­ing Kuwait and be­fore fly­ing to Bangkok. Once there, she bar­ri­caded her­self in an air­port ho­tel to avoid de­por­ta­tion and tweeted about her sit­u­a­tion.

On Fri­day, Prime Min­is­ter Justin Trudeau an­nounced that Canada would ac­cept Alqu­nun as a refugee. Her sit­u­a­tion has high­lighted the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Ara­bia, where sev­eral women flee­ing abuse by their fam­i­lies have been caught try­ing to seek asy­lum abroad in re­cent years and re­turned home.

Free­land said Alqu­nun pre­ferred not to take ques­tions Sat­ur­day.

“She is ob­vi­ously very tired after a long jour­ney and she pre­ferred to go and get set­tled,” Free­land said. “But it was Ra­haf’s choice to come out and say hello to Cana­di­ans. She wanted Cana­di­ans to see that she’s here, that she’s well and that she’s very happy to be in her new home.”

After ar­riv­ing 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 ap­ply­ing for a health card.

Calla said Alqu­nun has friends in Toronto who she would be meet­ing up with this week­end.

“She did com­ment to me about the cold,” Free­land said.

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

Alqu­nun flew to Toronto via Seoul, South Ko­rea, ac­cord­ing to Thai im­mi­gra­tion Po­lice Chief Su­rachate Hak­parn. Alqu­nun tweeted two pic­tures from her plane seat — one with what ap­pears to be a glass of wine and her pass­port and an­other hold­ing her pass­port while on the plane with the hash­tag “I did it” and the emo­jis show­ing a plane, hearts and a wine glass.

Canada’s de­ci­sion to grant her asy­lum could fur­ther up­set the coun­try’s re­la­tions with Saudi Ara­bia.

In Au­gust, Saudi Ara­bia ex­pelled Canada’s am­bas­sador to the king­dom and with­drew its own am­bas­sador after Canada’s For­eign Min­istry tweeted sup­port for women’s right ac­tivists who had been ar­rested. The Saudis also sold Cana­dian in­vest­ments and or­dered their cit­i­zens study­ing in Canada to leave.

Free­land avoided an an­swer when asked what Alqu­nun’s case would mean to Saudi-Cana­dian re­la­tions.

There was no im­me­di­ate Saudi gov­ern­ment re­ac­tion, nor any men­tion of her ar­rival in state me­dia. But a Saudi gov­ern­mentsanc­tioned body, the Na­tional So­ci­ety for Hu­man Rights, said it de­plores the meth­ods used by some for­eign of­fi­cials and or­ga­ni­za­tions to “in­cite” some young Saudi fe­males to dis­obey their fam­i­lies and leave the coun­try.

In a state­ment late Sat­ur­day, the group’s direc­tor, Muf­tal al-Qah­tani, slammed al­leged po­lit­i­cal mo­tives of some coun­tries and said at­tempts to en­cour­age these women to dis­obey their fam­i­lies leaves some vul­ner­a­ble to abuse and traf­fick­ing, and harms fam­i­lies. Al-Qah­tani in­sisted women fac­ing abuse in the king­dom can turn to Saudi au­thor­i­ties and lo­cal or­ga­ni­za­tions for as­sis­tance.

Free­land said that the U.N. refugee agency found Alqu­nun was in dan­ger in Thai­land and that Canada’s gov­ern­ment is glad it was able to act quickly to of­fer her refuge.

Alqu­nun’s fa­ther ar­rived in Bangkok on Tues­day, but his daugh­ter re­fused to meet with him.

Sev­eral other coun­tries, in­clud­ing Aus­tralia, had been in talks with the U.N.’s refugee agency to ac­cept Alqu­nun, Su­rachate said.

“She chose Canada. It’s her per­sonal de­ci­sion,” he said.

Aus­tralian me­dia re­ported that UNHCR had with­drawn its re­fer­ral for Alqu­nun to be re­set­tled in Aus­tralia be­cause Can­berra was tak­ing too long to de­cide on her asy­lum.

“When re­fer­ring cases with spe­cific vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties who need im­me­di­ate re­set­tle­ment, we at­tach great im­por­tance to the speed at which coun­tries con­sider and process cases,” a UNHCR spokesper­son in Bangkok told The As­so­ci­ated Press in an email re­ply on con­di­tion of anonymity be­cause the per­son wasn’t au­tho­rized to dis­cuss the case pub­licly.

“Why did Ra­haf go to Canada in­stead of her pre­ferred choice of Aus­tralia where she had friends?” Hu­man Rights Watch ex­ec­u­tive direc­tor Ken­neth Roth said in a tweet. “Be­cause she needed safety from her Saudi pur­suers fast, and Canada ex­pe­dited her case while Aus­tralia slowwalked it.”

Canada’s am­bas­sador saw her off at the air­port, where Alqu­nun thanked ev­ery­one for help­ing her. She plans to start learn­ing more English, though she al­ready speaks it more than pass­ably.

Alqu­nun was stopped Jan. 5 at Bangkok’s Su­varn­ab­humi Air­port by im­mi­gra­tion po­lice who de­nied her en­try and seized her pass­port.

She bar­ri­caded her­self in an air­port ho­tel room where her so­cial me­dia cam­paign got enough pub­lic and diplo­matic sup­port that Thai of­fi­cials ad­mit­ted her tem­po­rar­ily un­der the pro­tec­tion of U.N. of­fi­cials, who granted her refugee sta­tus Wednes­day.

Su­rachate said her fa­ther — whose name has not been re­leased — de­nied phys­i­cally abus­ing Alqu­nun or try­ing to force her into an ar­ranged mar­riage, which were among the rea­sons she gave for her flight. He said Alqu­nun’s fa­ther wanted his daugh­ter back but re­spected her de­ci­sion.

“He has 10 chil­dren. He said the daugh­ter might feel ne­glected some­times,” Su­rachate said.

CHRIS YOUNG — THE CANA­DIAN PRESS VIA AP

Ra­haf Mo­hammed Alqu­nun, 18, cen­ter, stands with Cana­dian Min­is­ter of For­eign Af­fairs Chrys­tia Free­land, right, as she ar­rives at Toronto Pear­son In­ter­na­tional Air­port, on Sat­ur­day.

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