Saudi teenager who fled home embraces Canada

VIDEO: REUTERS
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun wants to experience what it is like to be a teenager, free to do what she wants and dress how she wants.
Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun wants to experience what it is like to be a teenager, free to do what she wants and dress how she wants.PHOTO: REUTERS

TORONTO (NYTIMES) - She wants to go to college to study architecture. She would like to take English classes. She is wondering about how to harness her newfound media stardom.

But mostly, celebrated Saudi-turned-Canadian-refugee Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun just wants to experience what it is like to be a teenager - free to do what she wants and dress how she wants.

"I want to do crazy things I've never done," she said in an interview on Monday (Jan 14), sitting in a classroom at a refugee centre in downtown Toronto.

On just her third day in Canada, Ms Qunun, 18, seemed to still be a bit stunned.

In less than two weeks, she has gone from the cloistered life of a Saudi woman in Hail, a city in the north-western part of the country, to the life of an independent woman on the other side of the world.

Now she can do things unimaginable for a woman at home.

"From the welcome I had and love I've been shown, I saw this is a country that respects human rights and the dignity of a person," she said through an interpreter.

"It's also cold." It was minus 1 deg C in Toronto on Monday.

Ms Qunun became a social media sensation and a cause celebre for the rights of women and refugees after fleeing her family on Jan 5 while they were on holiday in Kuwait.

Freed from the restrictions on women's movement back home in Saudi Arabia and using a friend's credit card, she bought a ticket for a flight to Australia with a layover in Bangkok - where Thai officials said they would send her back home.

Ms Qunun spent six nights holed up in a Bangkok airport hotel, opened a new Twitter account and mounted a campaign for asylum. "I'm afraid, my family WILL kill me," she tweeted, adding later that her family had threatened to kill her before and considered her "as property or their slave".

Furthering her danger, she renounced Islam on Twitter. "They will kill me because I fled and because I announced my atheism. They wanted me to pray and to wear a veil and I didn't want to."

International outrage over the attempts to send her back to Saudi Arabia quickly mounted.

Although Ms Qunun had planned to fly on to Australia, the Canadian government granted her asylum. On Saturday morning, she arrived at the Toronto airport, where she was greeted by the Canadian foreign minister and a phalanx of reporters.

In Saudi Arabia, Ms Qunun was a first-year university student, studying basic science and math. One of 10 children of a well-off emir, she said she had been financially comfortable, but had no freedom.

Things grew even harder, she said, when her father left the city and put her under the guardianship of her older brother. She described her life as one of strict rules and abuse at the hands of her family.

After she cut her hair in a way her family did not approve, her brother locked her in a room for six months, she said. A few months ago, when she removed her niqab, he beat her and locked her up again, she said.

After days of silence, the first comments about the case have emerged from Saudi Arabia.

 
 
 

In a statement, the head of the Saudi government-funded National Society for Human Rights accused countries of inciting "Saudi female delinquents" to rebel against their family values and seek asylum. He called the actions political, not humanitarian.

The case is sure to further fray relations between Canada and Saudi Arabia, which have been strained since summer, when Canada's Foreign Affairs Ministry posted two Twitter messages calling for the release of imprisoned rights activists in Saudi Arabia.

In response, the kingdom expelled the Canadian ambassador to Riyadh, recalled the Saudi ambassador to Ottawa, froze all new trade and investment deals and ordered thousands of Saudi students studying in Canada to transfer elsewhere.

The Canadian government, however, did not back down.

Canada accepts tens of thousands of refugees a year, but few have Ms Qunun's stardom or powerful, if newly formed, network. In just more than one week, she has garnered 176,000 Twitter followers, forged relationships with human rights activists and been on the front pages of newspapers around the world.

No fewer than three GoFundMe campaigns have been launched in her name, raising more than US$12,900 (S$17,440).

Fame has come with its price though. She has received death threats online, credible enough for refugee settlement workers to provide her with security.

And Ms Qunun says she misses the kinship with her sisters and worries that her family will take out its anger on her younger sister, who is still at home.

She had once hoped simply to fashion a normal life. Now, she is contemplating whether she should put her unexpected platform to use.

"I have a lot of followers," she said. "My voice is heard. Maybe I can do something with it."

But first, she will need to do some basics. The Canadian government offers refugees financial support for a year - and free English classes.

Over the next few weeks, refugee settlement workers will also help her get health insurance, a social insurance number and a bank account. They will help her find an apartment and furnish it.

But Ms Qunun will have to learn to go grocery shopping, and navigate the city on the bus and subway by herself - the sort of things she has never experienced.

"It's like moving from one planet to another. Nothing is the same," said one Canadian women's rights activist, Ms Yasmine Mohammed, who helped raise more than US$7,600 for Ms Qunun. "She has to focus on herself and her mental health before she tries to help other people out."