An 18-year-old whose effort to escape her abusive family in Saudi Arabia captured attention around the world is relieved to be starting a new life in Toronto but is apprehensive about the challenges ahead, those helping her say.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun spent the weekend meeting people she had corresponded with online, getting outfitted in winter clothing and catching up on sleep, said Mario Calla, executive director of immigration settlement organization COSTI.
“She’s well. Excited to be here, apprehensive at the same time – so many unknowns,” he said.
Ms. al-Qunun’s arrival in Canada ends a harrowing journey. Earlier this month, while visiting Kuwait, she fled her family and flew to Thailand. There, the young woman told officials she feared her family would kill her if she returned to Saudi Arabia.
After Ms. al-Qunun was denied entry into Bangkok, she barricaded herself in an airport hotel room, where her Twitter posts drew global attention.
Ms. al-Qunun, who has renounced Islam, is concerned about her safety in light of continued online threats, including from family members, said Yasmine Mohammed, a human-rights activist living in British Columbia.
“She’s overwhelmed right now, in a bit of a shock going through all of this,” said Ms. Mohammed, who is communicating with the teen on social media.
Ms. al-Qunun is staying in temporary accommodation arranged by COSTI, which is helping her settle in Toronto. The organization has increased security and staff accompany the teen when she goes out, Mr. Calla said.
Ms. al-Qunun is eager to find a place to live, enroll in English classes and pursue education, her supporters say, but is concerned about how she will support herself financially.
Ms. Mohammed, along with fellow activists Ensaf Haidar and Tarek Fatah, organized a GoFundMe campaign to help Ms. al-Qunun, raising more than $11,000 in less than 24 hours. Ms. Mohammed said the teen is “overwhelmed with gratitude.”
Ms. al-Qunun will face many challenges, including trying to adjust to being cut off from her family, said Ms. Mohammed, who helps individuals who have left Islam.
“Once all of this hullabaloo around her dies down, she’s going to start to feel the weight of that. Right now she’s just all excited with all of the newness and all that but it will hit her eventually,” she said. “I call it a wound that never heals.”
Ms. al-Qunun tweeted about her excitement shortly before boarding her Toronto-bound flight. “I would like to thank you people for supporting me and saving [sic] my life,” she wrote. “Truly I have never dreamed of this love and support. You are the spark that would motivate me to be a better person.”
After her arrival at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on Saturday, Ms. al-Qunun was introduced by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland as a “brave new Canadian.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced on Friday that at the request of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Canada would grant Ms. al-Qunun asylum, adding the country was doing it “to stand up for human rights, to stand up for women’s rights around the world.”
Dennis Horak, a former Canadian ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said while accepting Ms. al-Qunun was the right thing to do, her case will hinder Canada’s diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia.
“It will complicate, I think, efforts to try and rebuild the relationship but it’s probably manageable,” he said.
Mr. Horak said the government would do well to leave Ms. al-Qunun to settle into her new life and not “trot her out as a prop in a diplomatic game.”
In the summer, after Ms. Freeland tweeted concerns about social activists who had been arrested in Saudi Arabia, the country withdrew its envoy in Ottawa and expelled Mr. Horak, the Canadian ambassador. It also suspended Saudi state airline flights to Toronto and pulled out thousands of students and medical patients from Canada.
Saudi Arabia has not yet publicly commented on Ms. al-Qunan’s case. Ms. Freeland did not respond when asked repeatedly on Saturday about whether she expects this to further stoke tensions.
Instead, Ms. Freeland reiterated the Prime Minister’s comments on the importance of protecting women around the world.
Ms. al-Qunun’s case has highlighted the plight of women in Saudi Arabia, where they are typically treated as second-class citizens. Several Saudi women fleeing abuse by their families have been apprehended trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years.
JILL MAHONEY AND ANN HUI
The Globe and Mail, January 13, 2019