TORONTO - A Saudi teen whose flight from her allegedly abusive family captured global attention said Tuesday she wants to work in support of freedom for women around the world for years to come.
Rahaf Mohammed also has quickly embraced life in Canada, saying that when she learned she would be granted asylum, “the stress that I felt over the last week melted away.”
The 18-year-old also quickly shed a part of her Saudi past, dropping use of the name of the Alqunun family that disowned her.
In a public appearance organized by the U.N. refugee agency and an immigrant-aid group, she said through an interpreter that first priority is to learn English.
The young woman arrived in Canada over the weekend after a harrowing flight from her homeland. She fled what she said was physical and psychological abuse from her family in ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia, allegations of which the family denies.
She flew to Bangkok while on a trip to Kuwait. Once in Thailand, she barricaded herself in an airport hotel to avoid deportation and tweeted about her situation, gaining international sympathy and prompting the U.N. refugee agency to seek a home for her.
Her emotional social media posts ignited a #SaveRahaf movement — and prompted quick action. She was granted refugee status and was welcomed by Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland after landing in Toronto on Saturday.
“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.”
Her situation has highlighted the issue of women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, where several women fleeing abuse by their families have been denied asylum abroad and returned home in recent years.
“I am one of the lucky ones,” she said. “I know that there are unlucky women who disappeared after trying to escape or who could not do anything to change their reality.”
She said she wants to be independent, travel and make her own decisions on education, on a career and who she will marry.
“I had no say in any of this. Today I can proudly say that I am capable of making all those decisions,” she said.
She said that women in Saudi Arabia “can’t be independent and they need the approval of their male guardian for everything. Any woman who thinks of escaping, or escapes, will be at risk of persecution.”
She also said she is declining any more media interviews and declined to take questions.
“I would like to start living a normal private life, just like any other young woman living in Canada,” she said.
Mario Calla, executive director of COSTI Immigrant Services, a government-funded organization that is helping her settle in temporary housing and apply for a health card, said a security guard has been hired because of threats against her on social media. “We make sure she is never alone,” he said.
He said she has felt unsafe at times.
“She sees these threats,” he said. “She has left Islam and she basically has broken away from her family, and that scares her. Her emotions go back and forth.”
Calla said the group would eventually like to place her with a family so she’s not living alone. He called her a strong-willed individual, noting that’s how she got here.
His organization gets about two urgent refugee protection cases a year.
“What’s new about this is the role of social media that it played in getting the attention she received,” he said.
In her first weekend in Canada the young woman immediately got winter clothes and phone service.
Calla said she has completed high school and had expressed interest in taking civil engineering in university.
“But maybe there’s a future in politics for her,” Calla said. “She certainly has been handling all this pressure very well.”