Saudi teen Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun was described as a “brave new Canadian” by a Canadian government official as she appeared briefly at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport on Saturday.
Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland appeared alongside the 18-year-old with her arm around the teen after being granted refugee status as she fled her allegedly abusive family.
Alqunun, fresh off a flight from Seoul, South Korea, and sporting a grey “Canada” hoodie and a blue hat emblazoned with the logo of the organization that arranged her resettlement, smiled and waved at a group of reporters, but offered no comment on her arrival.
Freeland, however, heaped praise on the young woman who shot to fame through her social media campaign to flee her family.
“It was a pleasure for me this morning to welcome to her new home a very brave new Canadian,” Freeland said. “… she wanted Canadians to see that she’s here, that she’s well, and that she’s very, very happy to be in her new home, although she did comment to me about the cold.”
“It does get warmer,” Freeland said she told her.
She was off to get winter clothes, said Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI Immigrant Services, which is helping her settle in temporary housing and applying for a health card.
Calla said Alqunun has friends in Toronto who she will be meeting up with this weekend.
Alqunun gained international prominence when she fled her family last week while visiting Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, where she barricaded herself in an airport hotel and launched a Twitter campaign outlining allegations of abuse against her relatives.
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.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Friday that the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees asked the federal government to allow Alqunun to settle in Canada, and Ottawa 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.
The UNHCR said Alqunun’s plight has captured the world’s attention and provided a glimpse into the situation of refugees worldwide.
Spokeswoman Lauren La Rose praised Canada’s willingness to step up and assist in this case, but noted that Alqunun’s situation highlights a need for more interventions around the world.
“Canada has been a great ally and leader in this area, but there needs to be more spaces so that women and girls or anyone that is vulnerable can find a safe third country to resettle in,” La Rose said.
Calla said there may be an increase in asylum seekers using social media as a tool to reach out to governments and agencies to make their case for being granted asylum.
“There are many, many people in desperate situations – desperate in the sense that their lives are in danger,” he said. “They will do anything to get out of those situations to safety so it may be a tool that some will use.”
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 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,” he said Friday.
At least one observer of middle-east politics predicted minimal fallout from Canada’s decision to welcome Alqunun.
Bessma Momani, a professor at the University of Waterloo and analyst of middle-eastern international affairs, said the relationship with the Saudi government has deteriorated to the point where such actions pose little political risk.
Momani said Saudi Arabia could theoretically pursue stiffer measures such as imposing full sanctions or shutting down the Canadian embassy entirely, but said the existing measures have already achieved virtually the same effect.
Sanctioning Alqunun’s resettlement and appearing to stand on principle, moreover, could bolster Trudeau’s image domestically at a time when he’s under fire from the left and the right on such issues as immigration policy and Indigenous relations, she added.
“There are a lot of gulf countries that you could … poke in the eye,” she said. “This one’s already in such an abysmal state of relations that there’s no real political or diplomatic harm to do.”