It was another proud moment for Canada: a Saudi teenager who had just been granted asylum walking through the arrivals gate at Toronto airport embraced by the country’s popular foreign minister.
Wearing a gray sweatshirt emblazoned with the word “Canada,” 18-year-old Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun smiled at the cameras that greeted her. But she left it to Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland to do the talking.
The minister presented her as a “very brave new Canadian.”
“Where we can save a single person, where we can save a single woman, that is a good thing to do,” said Freeland, who refused to answer repeated questions about how this decision will affect Canada’s strained relationship with Saudi Arabia. “And I’d like to also emphasize, this is part of a broader Canadian policy of supporting women and girls in Canada and around the world.”
The Saudi teenager became a cause celébrè for women’s and refugee rights after fleeing her family during a holiday in Kuwait to seek asylum.
She described her life in an interview with The New York Times as one of unrelenting abuse at the hands of her family, who live in the city of Hail, in northern Saudi Arabia. She said she was once locked in a room for six months because she had cut her hair in a way that her family did not approve of and that her family members used to beat her, particularly her brother.
Two years ago, after an unsuccessful suicide attempt, her family did not seek help for her, she said. It was then she started planning her escape. Her chance for freedom came last week, when her family took a trip to Kuwait, which does not have the same restrictions on women.
But once she arrived in Bangkok last Saturday, planning to travel on to Australia, she said her passport was confiscated and Thai officials threatened to return her to her family. Her brother and father arrived in Bangkok, demanding that she return with them.
Instead, she barricaded herself in a Thai airport hotel, opened a Twitter account and mounted a social media campaign for her asylum.
After Thai officials relented, and the United Nations declared her a refugee, the Canadian government agreed to grant her asylum.