Tired but smiling, an 18-year-old Saudi woman who said she feared death if deported back home has arrived in Canada, which swept in to offered her asylum after Australia delayed its decision.
“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 UN 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.
— Rahaf Mohammed رهف محمد (@rahaf84427714) January 11, 2019
“Canada believes very strongly in standing up for human rights throughout the world. We believe very strongly that women’s rights are human rights,” Freeland said.
Earlier, the Australian government welcomed the news that Ms Alqunun was granted asylum in Canada, saying her safety was its primary concern.
Australian officials had been weighing whether to offer her asylum, Immigration Minister David Coleman said.
“We have been working with the UNHCR and international partners to ensure her claim is assessed appropriately,” he said in a statement.
“We wish Ms Alqunun all the best for her future in Canada.”
Australia’s delay in deciding if Ms Alqunun would be granted asylum made a marked contrast with Canada’s PM Justin Trudeau.
“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,” he said as Ms Alqunun was leaving Thailand.
The UNHCR reportedly withdrew its referral for Alqunon to be resettled in Australia because Canberra was taking too long to decide on her asylum.
“When referring cases with specific vulnerabilities who need immediate resettlement, we attach great importance to the speed at which countries consider and process cases,” a UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok said in an email.
Canada’s ambassador had seen her off at the airport, where Alqunun thanked everyone for helping her. She plans to start learning more English, though she already speaks it more than passably.
Alqunun was stopped January 5 at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport by immigration police who denied her entry and seized her passport.
She barricaded herself in an airport hotel room where her social media campaign got enough public and diplomatic support that Thai officials admitted her temporarily under the protection of UN officials, who granted her refugee status on Wednesday.
Surachate said her father – whose name has not been released – denied physically abusing Alqunun or trying to force her into an arranged marriage, which were among the reasons she gave for her flight.
He said Alqunun’s father wanted his daughter back but respected her decision.
“He has 10 children. He said the daughter might feel neglected sometimes,” Surachate said.
Alqunun’s father arrived in Bangkok on Tuesday, but his daughter refused to meet with him.