Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, the young woman whose plight to escape her abusive family in Saudi Arabia captured attention around the world, arrived in Toronto on Saturday wearing a grey “Canada” hoodie and a wide smile across her face.
The 18-year-old was escorted by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland as she walked into the arrivals area at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport early Saturday. Ms. Freeland described Ms. al-Qunun to the dozens of awaiting reporters as a “brave new Canadian.”
The young woman posed briefly for photographers, but did not take questions. Instead, she grinned from beneath the rim of a blue United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) baseball cap, and allowed Ms. Freeland to speak on her behalf.
“She is obviously very tired after a long journey,” the minister said. “But 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.” In Toronto, the immigration settlement organization COSTI will be providing Ms. al-Qunun with temporary shelter and helping her with her next steps.
Ms. al-Qunun’s arrival in Canada ends a harrowing journey for the young woman. Last Saturday, she escaped her family in Kuwait and flew to Thailand to seek asylum. There, she told officials she feared her family would kill her if she returned to Saudi Arabia.
After she was initially denied entry in Bangkok, she barricaded herself in hotel room where her Twitter posts drew global attention. By the end of this week, Ms. al-Qunun’s Twitter account was followed by nearly 150,000 people from around the world. “I’m in real danger,” she wrote in several of her tweets.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday that at the request of the UNHCR, Canada would grant the young woman asylum, adding that he was pleased “to stand up for human rights, to stand up for women’s rights around the world.”
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 saiving [sic] my life,” Ms. al-Qunun wrote.
“Truly I have never dreamed of this love and support. You are the spark that would motivate me to be a better person.”
Ms. al-Qunun’s arrival takes place at a tense moment for Canada’s diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.
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 the Canadian ambassador. It also suspended Saudi state airline flights to Toronto and pulled out thousands of students and medical patients from Canada.
Ms. Freeland did not respond when asked repeatedly on Saturday about whether she expects this to further stoke tensions.
Instead, she reiterated the prime minister’s comments from a day earlier on the importance of protecting women around the world.
Ms. al-Qunun’s case this week has highlighted the plight of women in Saudi Arabia, where they are typically treated as second-class citizens. Several Saudi women fleeing abuse by their families have been apprehended trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years.
Lauren La Rose, a spokesperson for the UNHCR, watched as Ms. al-Qunun arrived in Toronto on Saturday. She said she couldn’t imagine experiencing what Ms. al-Qunun has at such a young age. “Clearly, she’s an incredibly resilient young woman, and has been such a strong advocate for herself,” said Ms. La Rose.
“On a personal level, I’m just so heartened that she’s here and that she’s safe.”
With files from Bob Fife