Tired but smiling, an 18-year-old Saudi runaway who said she feared death if deported back home arrived Saturday in Canada, which had offered her asylum in a case that attracted global attention after she mounted a social media campaign.
“This is Rahaf Alqunun, a very brave new Canadian,” Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said arm-in-arm with the Saudi woman in Toronto’s airport.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun smiled broadly as she exited an airport arrival door sporting a Canada zipper hoodie and a U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees hat, capping a dramatic week that saw her flee her family while visiting Kuwait and before flying to Bangkok. From there, she barricaded herself in an airport hotel to avoid deportation and tweeted about her situation.
On Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would accept Alqunun as a refugee. Her situation has highlighted the cause of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, where several women fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home.
Freeland said Alqunun preferred not to take questions Saturday.
“It was a pleasure for me this morning to welcome her to her new home,” Freeland said. “She is obviously very tired after a long journey and she preferred to go and get settled. But it was Rahaf’s choice to come out and say hello to Canadians. She wanted Canadians to see that she’s here, that she’s well and that she’s very happy to be in her new home.”
Freeland said Alqunun commented about the cold weather and she responded that it gets warmer in Canada.
Alqunun flew to Toronto via Seoul, South Korea, according to Thai immigration Police Chief Surachate Hakparn. Alqunun tweeted two pictures from her plane seat — one with what appears to be a glass of wine and her passport and another holding her passport while on the plane with the hashtag “I did it” and the emojis showing plane, hearts and wine glass.
Canada’s decision to grant her asylum could further upset the country’s relations with Saudi Arabia.
In August, Saudi Arabia expelled Canada’s ambassador to the kingdom and withdrew its own ambassador after Canada’s Foreign Ministry tweeted support for women’s right activists who had been arrested. The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and ordered their citizens studying in Canada to leave.
No country, including the U.S., spoke out publicly in support of Canada in that spat with the Saudis. Freeland didn’t address what Alqunun’s case would mean to Saudi relations.
“Canada believes very strongly in standing up for human rights throughout the world. We believe very strongly that woman’s rights are human rights,” Freeland said.
There was no immediate Saudi government reaction, nor any mention of her arrival in state media.
The head of Thailand’s immigration police said Monday that an 18-year-old Saudi woman who was stopped in Bangkok as she was trying to travel to Australia for asylum to escape alleged abuse by her family will not be sent anywhere against her wishes.