Saudi teenager Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, centre, stands with Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, right, as she arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport, on Saturday, January 12, 2019. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press)

Foreign affairs minister welcomes ‘brave new Canadian’ as Saudi teen lands in Toronto

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun was fleeing abusive family in Saudi Arabia

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 applying for a health card.

Calla said Alqunun has friends in Toronto who 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 may 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,” he said. “They will do anything to get out of those situations to safety so it may be a tool that some will use.”

The move to accept Alqunun could serve to 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 Friday.

VIDEO: Trudeau says Canada has granted asylum to Saudi woman

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.”

Alanna Rizza and Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press


Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Banks need to help people out with credit card interest

Reduce credit card interest rates and reduce them drastically

Underground utility work completed on Chemainus Road Corridor Project

Tendering process to determine a contractor to begin the second phase in mid-June

Void of summer events going to be felt in Chemainus

CBIA cancels Classics Car Show and Canada Day celebrations

Paid sick leave a must going forward

The chickens are coming home to roost, so to speak, on this issue during the COVID-19 pandemic.

VIDEO: Injured bald eagle rescued in B.C. First Nations community

Bird suspected injured in fight, whisked off to Coquitlam rehab

Facing changes together: Your community, your journalists

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world in ways that would have… Continue reading

Toronto Raptors’ Ujiri says conversations about racism can no longer be avoided

Thousands have protested Floyd’s death and repeated police killings of black men across the United States

B.C.’s Central Kootenay region declares state of emergency, issues evacuation orders

The evacuation alert covers all areas except the Cities of Castelgar and Nelson

‘I’m afraid’: Witnesses of wolf attack on senior near Prince Rupert worried about safety

Frank Russ shows where the unprovoked wolf attacked his father

Protesters prepare to rally against racism in front of Vancouver Art Gallery

Rally is in response to the deaths of black Americans and a Toronto woman

Man dies in ATV accident south of Nanaimo

Incident happened on backroad Friday night in Nanaimo Lakes area

Protesters rally against anti-black, Indigenous racism in Toronto

Police estimated the crowd to be between 3,500 and 4,000 and said there was no violence

Feds earmark $1.5M to support recovery of B.C., Indigenous tourism

B.C. money will be split between Vancouver Island and Indigenous tourism

Most Read