A young Saudi woman who fled her allegedly abusive family, drawing renewed attention to the plight of women in the conservative kingdom, has arrived in Toronto.
Rahaf Al-Qunun, 18, arrived at Pearson International Airport on Saturday morning on a flight from the South Korean capital Seoul, having left Bangkok on Friday night.
Al-Qunun emerged at the arrivals gate with Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who introduced her as “a very brave new Canadian.” Freeland said Al-Qunun was tired from her ordeal and a long journey, and won’t be making public comment at this time.
“She’s very, very happy to be in her new home although she did comment to me about the cold,” Freeland said. “I told her it does get warmer.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had said Friday that Canada had accepted a request from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to grant Al-Qunun asylum.
“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, and I can confirm that we have accepted the UN’s request,” he said.
Al-Qunun drew international attention to her case last weekend after she launched a Twitter campaign from an airport hotel room in Bangkok, where she said she was unlawfully detained at the behest of Saudi authorities who sought to prevent her from traveling to Australia.
“I’m in real danger because the Saudi embassy trying to forcing [sic] me to go back to Saudi Arabia, while I’m at the airport waiting for my second flight,” she said in one of her first tweets.
On Sunday, Jan. 6, she said that Saudi embassy officials seized her passport and told her she would be put on a plane to Kuwait, where her family was waiting for her.
In a series of Twitter messages, Al-Qunun disclosed that she was trying to escape her family, who abused her physically and psychologically, at one point locking her up in a room for six months after she cut her hair.
She said she feared being killed by her family after publicly renouncing Islam — “And that itself is like a crime in Saudi.”
“I’m sure 100 per cent they will KILL me,” she said.
She added that her family told Saudi authorities she was mentally ill in a bid to have her forcibly returned.
The hashtag #SaveRahaf soon began trending on Twitter, spread by a network of activists including several in Canada.
Saudi authorities denied Al-Qunun’s claims of abuse, with the country’s ambassador to Thailand telling Saudi media that Al-Qunun had been arrested for violating Thai laws.
Abdul-Ilah al-Shuaibi said Al-Qunun had several sisters, and it seemed “impossible” that only one of the sisters would be abused to the point of fleeing.
However, on Monday, Thailand granted her temporary access to the country under the protection of the UN refugee agency, which evaluated her asylum claim and granted her refugee status.
Human Rights Watch said at the time that Canada played a central role in persuading the Thai government to allow Al-Qunun to seek asylum rather than deport her to Saudi Arabia.
Phil Robertson, the NGO’s deputy director for the Asia region, told Global News that Canada “should be proud” of its role in protecting her rights.
“Ambassador Donica Pottie and her team worked long and hard on both Sunday and Monday to raise their concerns with the Thai government and UN agencies that Rahaf should not be sent back to Saudi Arabia where she would likely face serious abuses and persecution,” he said.
“The advocacy they did, working with other like-minded embassies in Bangkok, was critical in making the case that UNHCR had to be brought in to provide Rahaf with protection. “It was a team effort between embassies, human rights and refugee support NGOs, media, and online activists, and Canada should be proud of the central role they played in this victory.”
Although Al-Qunun initially said she wanted to seek asylum in Australia, it became evident in the past week that Canada represented her quickest path to freedom.
Her father and brother arrived in Bangkok late last week to try and take her back to Saudi Arabia, but their efforts were in vain as Al-Qunun refused to meet them.
“It was her wish to go to Canada,” Thailand’s immigration chief told reporters on Friday.
“She still refuses to meet with her father and brother, and they are going to be traveling back tonight… They are disappointed.”
Al-Qunun’s arrival in Canada is likely to exacerbate Canada’s already testy relationship with Saudi Arabia.
The two countries became embroiled in a diplomatic spat last year following Ottawa’s criticism of the detention of women’s rights activists in Saudi Arabia.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expelled Canada’s ambassador, while the kingdom also sold off Canadian investments and recalled its students from Canadian universities.
However, Trudeau and Freeland appeared unfazed, saying Canada would always stand up for human rights around the world.
“Canada believes strongly that women’s rights are human rights,” Freeland said on Saturday after introducing Al-Qunun.
“It is absolutely the case that there are far too many women who are in dangerous situations both in Canada and around the world. For a single woman or girl to be in a dangerous situation is one too many,” she said.
“It’s also obvious that the oppression of women is not a problem that can be resolved in a day. But rather than cursing the darkness, we really believe in lighting a single candle.”
Freeland reiterated that Canada was not perfect itself when it came to protecting women.
“I want to emphasize that we as Canadians should not be complacent. There are women and girls in Canada — right this minute — who are in dangerous situations and we have a responsibility to them as well.”
Human Rights Watch hailed Al-Qunun’s safe arrival in Canada as an example of “what can happen when one determined young woman with a Twitter account meets a global network of human rights activists.”
In a blog post, the NGO’s senior Asia researcher Sunai Phasuk recounted Al-Qunun’s story and praised Canada for “cutting through red tape” to grant her asylum.
“She made it with courage and perseverance, aided by newfound friends around the world. This is a victory for everyone who cares about women’s rights, values youth boldly seeking change, and demands that governments operate in light and not darkness,” Phasuk wrote.
“We need more of these positive movements in 2019. #RahafSaved”