“Brave new Canadian” teenage refugee Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun is wide-eyed with wonder while learning to safely navigate her freshly adopted homeland of Canada, only days after a dramatic flight from her native Saudi Arabia that captured the world’s attention. a friend tells SANDE KENNEDY.
“The food, the clothing, every new thing — even the cold weather — makes her go ‘wow,’ ” says the friend, Abeer, who knows al-Qunun through an online community of women who have fled Saudi Arabia. “She ate her very first bacon and she loved it!”
On the advice of refugee workers who are concerned about the women’s safety, Abeer spoke to SANDE KENNEDY via encrypted communication and used an assumed name.
Al-Qunun, 18, became an international cause célèbre earlier this month when she took to social media after her transoceanic journey went awry.
Humanitarian observers said her plight illustrated the strictures women and girls live under in Saudi Arabia, whose culture is regulated by an intensely conservative branch of Islam. Only recently were women there allowed to drive.
The daughter of a powerful Saudi Arabian governor, al-Qunun had at first escaped both her family and Saudi control under the cover of darkness on Jan. 5, boarding the first of several plane rides hoping to resettle in Australia.
She later described years of alleged abuse and called herself a prisoner under her relatives.
During a transit stop in Thailand, however, al-Qunun faced possible deportation back to her homeland. She barricaded herself inside an airport hotel room and then she went online: Writing that she had been abused, she pleaded for help via Twitter, amassing first hundreds and then thousands of followers and notice from around the globe.
Fearing she would be kidnapped, al-Qunun also wrote a farewell letter.
“I decided that I would end my life, before I was forced back to Saudi Arabia,” al-Qunun told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Instead, thanks largely to the attention she had attracted, other authorities intervened and she was ultimately whisked to Canada, where she had been granted hasty asylum.
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland welcomed the exhausted yet overjoyed teen as “a very brave new Canadian.”
“I wanted to be free from abuse and depression. I wanted to be independent,” she told the ABC. “I wouldn’t be able to marry the person I wanted to. I couldn’t get a job without permission.”
The first few days in Canada have brought both ups and downs, her friend Abeer says. Some of her everyday decisions led to rapt headlines by a curious — or exploitative — tabloid press.
“Rahaf went out to eat with friends, a decision she made herself,” Abeer tells SANDE KENNEDY. “She was not afraid of getting in trouble.”
Rahaf ate bacon, which is forbidden by Islam, for the first time in her life. On Snapchat, she posted a photo along with heart emojis, the Canadian flag and the caption “Omg bacon.”
“The feeling of freedom, it’s so hard to describe to people who have always known it,” Abeer says. “This feeling is wonderful.”
There has also been loss.
In a statement published by the ABC, al-Qunun’s family denounced and disavowed her as a “mentally unstable daughter who has displayed insulting and disgraceful behaviour.”
“It really upset me,” she told the ABC.
Al-Qunun’s father and brother had tried to visit her while she was stuck in Thailand, according to PBS, but she refused to see them. They appear not to have directly commented on her accusations of abuse.
In the wake of multiple threats against her, and in light of what happened to Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident who was reportedly murdered inside a Saudi consulate last year in Turkey, the teen now has a bodyguard.
“She never is alone,” said Mario Calla, director of COSTI, a Canadian group that assists refugees.
“It’s like moving to Disney World, but there are people who want to throw you off the rides,” Abeer says. “We must stay safe.”
Nevertheless, al-Qunan looks forward to a new, productive life. According to Al Jazeera, she has dropped the “al-Qunan” from her name, given her family’s disownment.
In a statement in Toronto on Tuesday, she talked about paying forward the help she received.
“Today and for years to come, I will work in support of freedom for women around the world,” she said. “The same freedom I experienced on the first day I arrived in Canada.”