Teen refugee fleeing Saudi Arabia arrives in Toronto

By The Canadian Press
January 12, 2019 - 9:56am

TORONTO — A Saudi teen described as a "brave new Canadian" by one of the federal government's senior ministers has landed in Toronto after fleeing her allegedly abusive family.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, landed at Toronto's Pearson International Airport on Saturday morning aboard a flight from Seoul, South Korea, a day after Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced his government would accept her as a refugee.

Alqunun, wearing a hoodie emblazened with the word Canada, appeared briefly to reporters at the airport flanked by Foreign Affairs Minsiter Chrystia Freeland, who had her arm wrapped around the teen.

Freeland said the teen would not be offering any comments before heading to her "new home."

"Rahaf wanted Canadians to see that she's arrived," Freeland said. "She's a very brave young woman who's been through a lot."

The young woman fled her family while visiting Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, where she barricaded herself in an airport hotel and launched a Twitter campaign that drew global attention to her case.

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. 

Trudeau announced Friday that the United Nations High Commission for Refugees asked Canada to take Alqunun as a refugee, and Canada 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.

But 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 Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia 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. And when the United Nations made a request of us that we grant Ms. Alqunun asylum, we accepted," he said.

Here are five things about what Alqunun was running from:

1. Male stamp required

It can be a father, husband, brother or even a son, but under Saudi law, women need a male guardian's approval to conduct a variety of tasks to function. This includes applying for a passport, travelling outside the country, studying abroad, getting married or even getting out of prison. "This is a systematic discrimination and abuse of women's rights. It is something that doesn't really belong in these modern times," said Phil Robertson, the deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division.

2. Running can get you killed

Like Alqunun, some Saudi women have tried to flee, but for many the result has been tragic. In one high-profile case, Dina Ali Lasloom was stopped while trying to flee Saudi Arabia in 2017. She was forced to return and according to activists, she was never heard from again. Robertson said that with the arrival of Alqunun's father and brother in Bangkok this week, there were fears of a repeat "and that the Saudi Embassy could exercise influence or resources to cause problems."

3. Reforms are slow

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman made international headlines last year when he lifted a ban on women driving. King Salman also issued a decree that required all branches of government to stop requesting that a male guardian's authorization be required to receive government services. It called on them to review their regulations and prepare a list of things that would require a man's permission. While Amnesty International noted that the decree might improve women's lives, it hadn't been implemented by the end of the year.

4. Fighting from the inside can be futile

Five prominent female activists who have campaigned against guardianship wound up in Saudi prisons last year. Loujain al-Hathloul, Iman al-Nafjan and Aziza al-Yousef were arrested in a first sweep. That was followed by the arrest of Nassima al-Sada and Samar Badawi. She is the sister of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger whose wife lives in Quebec. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and 1,000 lashes from a whip for writing a blog post deemed offensive to Saudi leadership.

5. Female foreign criticism not welcome

In August, Canada's Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland took to Twitter to say she was "very alarmed" to learn of Samar Badawi's imprisonment, noting she was Raif's sister. "Canada stands together with the Badawi family in this difficult time, and we continue to strongly call for the release of both Raif and Samar Badawi." Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman responded by expelling Canada's ambassador and withdrawing his own envoy. The Saudis also sold Canadian investments and recalled their students from universities in Canada, including an unknown number of women.

Sources: Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the Associated Press

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