TORONTO, Canada – A young Saudi woman at the center of a dramatic standoff at a Bangkok airport hotel after fleeing her family and renouncing Islam touched down Saturday in Canada, her new home after the Liberal government here offered her refugee status.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, was smiling as she entered the arrival lobby at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport wearing a gray Canada sweatshirt and a blue baseball cap bearing the logo of the United Nations refugee agency. She was accompanied by Canada Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, who told journalists that Ms. Alqunun was too tired from her journey to take questions and wanted to take some time to get settled. Ms. Alqunun left Bangkok for Seoul on Friday, where she later connected to Korean Air flight 73 bound for Toronto, Canada’s largest city.
“It was a pleasure for me this morning to welcome to her new home a very brave new Canadian,” Ms. Freeland told reporters. She said it was Ms. Alqunun’s choice to greet journalists when she arrived at the airport. “She wanted Canadians to see that she’s here, that she’s well and that she’s very, very happy to be in her new home.”
Ms. Alqunun developed an international following last week after she posted on Twitter that Saudi officials at an airport in Bangkok had seized her passport and barricaded herself in her hotel room to avoid being deported. Ms. Alqunun had travelled to Bangkok on her own after slipping away from her family during a vacation in Kuwait.
During the standoff, Ms. Alqunun told The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets that she had intended to fly to Australia, and was afraid her family would kill her if she was sent back to the Middle East. She also asked Canada to grant her asylum in a series of messages on Twitter that quickly went viral in an improvised social-media campaign to ensure her safety.
Ms. Freeland said Canada had agreed to accept Ms. Alqunun after the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees gave her refugee status. “She’s a person whose life was in danger,” Ms. Freeland said.
Details about where in Canada Ms. Alqunun will settle and how she will be assisted weren’t immediately available on Saturday. A Twitter account Ms. Alqunun manages with a friend posted a photo of an airport runway on Saturday morning with the comment “Omg I am in Canada everyone.”
Ms. Freeland’s presence at Toronto’s airport was noteworthy because it was a tweet from her foreign ministry last August, calling on Riyadh to immediately release human-rights activists who had been jailed, that triggered a diplomatic row between Canada and Saudi Arabia. The Saudi kingdom expelled Canada’s ambassador to the kingdom and instructed Saudi students in Canada to make arrangements to leave.
Dennis Horak, Canada’s former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, said on Friday the kingdom would likely look at Canada’s decision to accept Ms. Alqunun as another example of interference in the kingdom’s internal affairs.
Officials from the Saudi embassy in Canada didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on Saturday.
Thailand’s immigration chief said at a news conference on Friday that Ms. Alqunun chose to settle in Canada after she was interviewed by representatives from both Canada and Australia. The United Nations refugee agency, which designated her a refugee after her arrival in Thailand, said it had accelerated its processing of her case because it was deemed urgent.
In an earlier private message exchange on Twitter, Ms. Alqunun described herself as an atheist and said she was certain she would be killed if she were sent home. Ms. Alqunun’s father and brother flew to Bangkok earlier in the week in an effort to persuade authorities there to return Ms. Alqunun to them. Ms. Alqunun refused to meet with them.
By Jacquie McNish and Kim Mackrael
The Wall Street Journal