TORONTO, Jan 13 – A “very, very happy” young Saudi woman who caused a sensation by defying her family and seeking asylum abroad was welcomed with open arms in Toronto Saturday at the end of a dramatic but exhausting international odyssey.
Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland greeted Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun after she landed in Toronto, wearing a gray hoodie emblazoned in red with the word “CANADA” and a blue cap with the logo of the UN High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR).
Smiling broadly, the 18-year-old posed for photographers with Freeland at her side, but made no statement.
Freeland said Qunum “wanted Canadians to see that she’s here, that she’s well and that she is very, very happy to be in her new home.”
“She had a pretty long journey and is exhausted and prefers not to take questions for the moment,” she said.
Qunun captured the world’s attention with a trail of Twitter posts that ignited a #SaveRahaf movement as she fled what she said was an abusive family in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia.
The publicity thwarted an attempt to deport her to Saudi Arabia after she arrived in Bangkok on a flight from Kuwait a week ago, with Thai authorities instead turning her over to the UN’s refugee agency.
Then on Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau made the surprise announcement that Canada would take her in.
Freeland said that in granting Qunum asylum, Canada was “standing up for human rights around the world, and we believe very strongly that women’s rights are human rights.”
“I believe in lighting a single candle and where we can save a single person, where we can save a single woman, that is a good thing to do,” she said.
The move is sure to further strain Canada’s relations with the kingdom. That relationship went sideways last August over Ottawa’s rights criticism of Saudi Arabia, prompting Riyadh to expel the Canadian ambassador and sever all trade and investment ties in protest.
Canada also sparked fury in Riyadh by demanding the “immediate release” of jailed rights campaigners, including Samar Badawi, the sister of jailed blogger Raif Badawi, whose family lives in Quebec.
Qunun’s attempt to flee Saudi Arabia was embraced by rights groups as a beacon of defiance against repression.