Saudi teen who was granted asylum in Canada says she's a lucky one
Published Tuesday, January 15, 2019 4:23AM EST Last Updated Tuesday, January 15, 2019 4:32PM EST
TORONTO -- A Saudi teen who shot to international prominence through her dramatic flight from an allegedly abusive family said Tuesday that she will devote her new life in Canada to fighting for the freedom of women around the world.
Rahaf Mohammed said her arrival in Toronto has allowed her to join the ranks of the "lucky ones" who experience independence in their everyday lives, something she contends is denied to women in her home country.
"I know that there are unlucky women who disappeared after trying to escape or who could not do anything to change their reality," the 18-year-old said in her first public statement since her arrival on Saturday.
"Today, and for years to come, I will work in support of freedom for women around the world....the same freedom I experienced on my first day I arrived in Canada."
Mohammed won global attention last week when she fled her family while visiting Kuwait and flew to Bangkok, Thailand. She barricaded herself in an airport hotel room and launched a Twitter campaign outlining allegations of abuse against her relatives -- accusations her family members have denied.
She landed in Toronto after the Canadian government agreed to resettle her at the request of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She was personally greeted by Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, who appeared with her arm around the teen.
Mohammed, who dropped her family name upon arriving in Canada, did not elaborate on her previous allegations during Tuesday's statement. She said, however, that restrictions in her home country denied her the sort of life she hopes to lead in Canada.
"I want to be independent. Travel. Make my own decisions on education, a career or who or when I should marry," she said. "I had no say in any of this. Today I can probably say that I am capable of making all of those decisions."
Mohammed did not share details on plans for her future in Canada, saying only that she hoped to begin establishing her own private life and would refrain from speaking to media in the near future.
COSTI Immigrant Services, a settlement organization under contract with Ottawa and tasked with helping Mohammed adjust to her new life, said the teen is spending her first few days in Canada signing up for a health card and bank account and other necessities before working on her long-term plans.
Getting her a phone was high on the list of errands, along with updating her wardrobe to suit Toronto's climate, said Mario Calla, the organization's executive director.
"We did that on Saturday, the first day she was here. She went to the mall and basically got some winter clothes because she thought she was going to go to Australia so she had a short skirt," he said, noting there was no time for her to buy new clothes in Thailand.
Eventually, Mohammed will need to find more permanent lodging, potentially with a host family, and think about her education and career plans, he said.
"First order of business, she says she wants to learn English," Calla said. Mohammed has finished high school and wants to go to university, having expressed an interest in civil engineering, he said.
The teen's safety remains a top concern, particularly in light of threats she has received on social media, he said. The organization has hired private security and ensures she is never alone, he said.
"She says she feels safe and then another time she says she doesn't feel safe and it's really whatever she's seen on social media," he said. "She sees these threats, because she has left Islam, she has basically broken away from her family and so on and that scares her."
Mohammed's case has drawn attention to Saudi Arabia's guardianship laws, which have become the source of internal debate.
During the height of last week's standoff in Bangkok, a Saudi newspaper published an opinion column that openly advocated for the abolishment of guardianship, which subjects Saudi women to the control of men in a host of areas including applying for a passport, travelling and studying abroad and getting married.
However, the head of the country's state-controlled human rights commission was also quoted in Saudi media on the weekend accusing Canada of meddling in the internal affairs of Mohammed's family with the intent of vilifying Saudi Arabia.
Mufleh Al-Qahtani, the head of the Saudi National Society for Human Rights, said Canada's action was "an attack on the rights of the families of these girls, who are severely harmed by the defamation following their daughters' action that pushes them into the unknown."
Canada's decision to grant Mohammed asylum has not yet drawn an official response from the Saudi government, which currently has a fraught relationship with Ottawa after a diplomatic spat that erupted last August.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman expelled Canada's ambassador and withdrew his own envoy after Freeland used Twitter to call for the release of women's rights activists who had been arrested in the country.