It was hard not to be moved by the smile on the face of Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun as she stepped off the plane in Toronto last weekend.
The 18 year-old from Saudi Arabia came to Canada after Ottawa hurriedly provided her with official refugee status while she was in Thailand appealing for help from the international community.
Apparently, the strict social and moral codes of Saudi Arabian society, which are clear that women are second-class citizens, and her family who adhere to them, was too much for Rahaf Mohammed, who has since dropped her last name of al-Qunun when her family disowned her after her story went viral around the globe.
“I felt that I was reborn, especially when I felt the love and the welcome,” she said with a brilliant ear-to-ear smile after coming to Canada and being personally greeted at the Toronto airport by Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s foreign minister.
She said that after a lifetime of alleged repression by her family, including getting locked in a room for six months after she had a haircut that her family didn’t approve of, she’s looking forward to leading an independent life in Canada where she can make her own decisions and be treated as an equal.
I’m proud to be a citizen of a country that oppressed and disenfranchised people from around the world can look to as a beacon of hope and promise.
I’ve seen the same emotions exhibited by Rahaf Mohammed when she arrived in Canada on the faces of a refugee family from the war-torn Syrian city of Aleppo who arrived to establish new lives in the Cowichan Valley in the summer of 2016.
The family of six included Mustafa Rasheed Qaddour, his wife Nada and their three young children, as well as Nada’s widowed mother and her 22-year-old sister.
The family had walked through treacherous mountains to a refugee camp in Antakya, Turkey, to get away from the fighting that was destroying their city.
They lived in a cramped tent in the refugee camp in political limbo for about a year until the family caught the interest of a group of concerned citizens in the Cowichan Valley who agreed to sponsor them to come to the Island.
I remember interviewing them with an interpreter the day after they arrived, and the excitement of starting a new life in a safe and prosperous country where bombs and guns weren’t going off on a regular basis was evident on all of their faces.
They told me that their first priority was to learn English and I was astounded when I visited them just six months later to find the kids speaking almost flawless English, with the family’s adults quickly picking the language up through the children.
Mustafa, a welder by trade, managed to get a job in the area, the family’s adult women were settling in well and the children had become like every other Canadian kid I know, in a very short time.
It was clear that the family was happy and pleased to be delivered from the hell they were living in before they came to Canada.
To blend in and become a Canadian, with all the rights that entails, seems to be the goal of Rahaf Mohammed, and I wish her well with her future.
Like all nations, Canada does have its problems, but I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.