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Canada

‘Very happy’ runaway Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun arrives in Toronto, Canada after exhausting international odyssey

  • Qunun arrived at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, wearing a hoodie emblazoned with the word Canada and a blue cap with the logo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has granted her refugee status
  • Qunun grabbed international attention last week after she barricaded herself in a Bangkok airport hotel room to resist being sent home to her family
PUBLISHED : Sunday, 13 January, 2019, 9:26am
UPDATED : Sunday, 13 January, 2019, 8:58pm

A “very, very happy” young Saudi woman who caused a sensation by defying her family and seeking asylum abroad was welcomed with open arms in Toronto at the end of a dramatic but exhausting international odyssey.

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland greeted Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun after she landed in Saturday in Toronto, wearing a grey hoodie emblazoned in red with the word “CANADA” and a blue cap with the logo of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Smiling broadly, the 18-year-old posed for photographers with Freeland at her side, but made no statement.

Freeland said told reporters that Qunun was “a very brave new Canadian.”

“Rahaf wanted Canadians to see that she has arrived at her new home,” Freeland told reporters.

“But she had a very long and tiring journey and so would prefer not to take questions today. And she is now going to go to her new home.”

Qunun’s lawyer Francois Zimeray said he was confident his client would receive financial support from Canadian authorities and non-governmental groups.

The government and the NGOs will also “do what’s necessary so she can resume the studies she had stopped under pressure from her family,” Zimeray added.

Qunun captured the world’s attention with a trail of Twitter posts that ignited a #SaveRahaf movement as she fled what she said was physical and psychological abuse from her family in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.

Rights groups also said she had renounced Islam, risking prosecution in Saudi Arabia. Her family has denied the abuse allegations.

The publicity thwarted an attempt to deport her to Saudi Arabia after she arrived in Bangkok on a flight from Kuwait a week ago, with Thai authorities instead turning her over to the UN’s refugee agency.

Then on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the surprise announcement that Canada would welcome her.

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Freeland said that in granting Qunun asylum, Canada was “standing up for human rights around the world, and we believe very strongly that women’s rights are human rights.”

“I believe in lighting a single candle and where we can save a single person, where we can save a single woman, that is a good thing to do,” she said.

Qunun, who had initially intended to seek asylum in Australia, chose Canada instead because Australia took too long assessing whether to grant her asylum.

“(Australia) takes too long. That’s why I went to Canada,” she told Reuters in a direct message before boarding her flight to Toronto.

Qunun took a Korean Air flight from Bangkok to Seoul on Friday and then a connecting flight to Toronto.

In her last tweet before leaving for Toronto, Qunun said, “I did it,” and posted pictures from inside a plane.

The granting of asylum was sure to further strain Canada’s relations with the kingdom. Ties went sideways last August over Ottawa’s rights criticism of Saudi Arabia, prompting Riyadh to expel the Canadian ambassador and sever all trade and investment ties in protest.

Canada also sparked fury in Riyadh by demanding the “immediate release” of jailed rights campaigners, including Samar Badawi, the sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, whose family lives in Quebec.

Qunun’s attempt to flee Saudi Arabia was embraced by rights groups as a beacon of defiance against repression.

“Ms al-Qunun’s plight has captured the world’s attention over the past few days, providing a glimpse into the precarious situation of millions of refugees worldwide,” said Filippo Grandi, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

“Refugee protection today is often under threat and cannot always be assured, but in this instance international refugee law and overriding values of humanity have prevailed.”

Raif Badawi’s wife Ensaf Haidar also praised Canada, calling Freeland on Twitter “the real hero” behind efforts to prevent Qunun’s repatriation to Saudi Arabia.

Qunun first said she was aiming for Australia. But late Friday, Thailand’s immigration police chief Surachate Hakparn said a smiling and cheerful Rahaf was bound for Toronto.

“She chose Canada … (and) Canada said it will accept her,” Surachate told reporters at Bangkok’s main airport.

In a tweet, the UNHCR said: “We welcome Rahaf’s arrival in Canada and the Canadian Government’s decision to provide protection and a long-term solution for her there as a resettled refugee.”

On Friday, Qunun posted a cryptic tweet on her profile saying, “I have some good news and some bad news”.

Her account was deactivated soon afterward in response to death threats she had faced, her friends said.

But she was back online later in the day, tweeting: “I would like to thank you people for supporting me and saving my life. Truly I have never dreamed of this love and support.”

Qunun’s use of Twitter saw her amass tens of thousands of followers within a week, highlighting her plight at a time when Saudi Arabia’s human rights record is under heavy scrutiny following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year.

Her deployment of social media allowed her to avoid the fate of countless other refugees who are quietly sent back home or left to languish in Bangkok detention centres.

She refused to see her father, who travelled to Thailand and expressed opposition to her resettlement.

Additional reporting by Reuters