The Saudi teenager whose flight from her allegedly abusive family captured global attention says her dream is to work in support of freedom for women around the world.
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun was granted asylum in Canada at the request of UN officials, touching town in Toronto on Saturday, local time. The Saudi runaway, 18, arrived arm-in-arm with the country’s foreign minister, smiling broadly while exiting the terminal wearing a Canada hoodie.
Now, just days after her dramatic escape from her high-profile family while on a holiday in Kuwait came to an end, Ms Alqunun has revealed what she hopes to do next.
Speaking through an interpreter, she made a public statement Tuesday, saying that her first goal is to learn English.
Ms Alqunun’s story has highlighted the issue of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, where several women fleeing abuse by their families have been caught trying to seek asylum abroad in recent years and returned home. The refugee said she expects her experience will inspire other women to flee her homeland.
“I think the number of women fleeing from the Saudi administration and abuse will increase, especially since there is no system to stop them,” Ms Alqunun told ABC News in the interview recorded in Toronto.
“I’m sure that there will be a lot more women running away. I hope my story encourages other women to be brave and free. I hope my story prompts a change to the law, especially as it’s been exposed to the world. This might be the agent for change.”
On Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would accept the young woman as a refugee.
Several other countries, including Australia, had been in talks with the UN’s refugee agency to accept her before she flew to Canada.
Ms Alqunun’s original request, to come to Australia, was reportedly being assessed by the Government. However she told SBS that her plea was taking “too long” to be taken seriously by the Australian Government. Canadian PM Trudeau then swiftly stepped in and announced his country would accept her as a refugee.
Responding to criticism surrounding why the Australian Government was dragging its feet on the woman’s application, Federal Education Minister Dan Tehan said it had only been “48 hours” since they received the teenager’s frantic plea. He said they were simply “following due process” and welcomed Canada’s offer.
“Obviously the Canadians have stepped in and I welcome the outcome that she will be safe,” Mr Tehan said over the weekend.
Immigration Minister David Coleman also defended the delay, saying her case “was progressing” when the UNHCR expressed its preference for Canada.
Meanwhile, Ms Alqunun’s family has publicly disowned her, with her father — a Saudi governor — calling his daughter “mentally unstable” and “insulting”.
“We disavow the so-called ‘Rahaf Alqunun’ the mentally unstable daughter who has displayed insulting and disgraceful behaviour,” he said in a statement reported by ABC News.
He also denied physically abusing his 18-year-old daughter, one of his 10 children, or trying to force her into an arranged marriage.
Responding to her family’s statement, Ms Alqunun said she was “upset” by the news.
“How could my family disown me simply because I wanted to be independent and escape their abuse? It really upset me,” she said.
“I wanted to be free from abuse and depression. I wanted to be independent. I wouldn’t be able to marry the person I wanted to. I couldn’t get a job without permission.”
A GoFundMe page set up on Sunday to help the teen start a new life in Canada has so far raised more than $10,000.
The page reads: “Starting a brand new life with nothing but the clothes on your back will be daunting for this 18-year-old girl — especially since she is not used to the harsh Canadian winters (or the price of a coat and boots!)”