Saudi Refugee in Canada Expects More Women to Flee Homeland

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, arrives Saturday at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Photo: Chris Young / The Canadian Press via AP
Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, arrives Saturday at Toronto Pearson International Airport. Photo: Chris Young / The Canadian Press via AP

CANBERRA, Australia — A Saudi woman accepted as a refugee in Canada has said in an Australian television interview that she expected her experience would inspire other women to flee her homeland.

Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun, 18, told Australian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview recorded in Toronto and broadcast in Australia on Tuesday that she hoped that the international attention on her flight from oppression in Saudi Arabia will be a catalyst for change.

“I think the number of women fleeing from the Saudi administration and abuse will increase, especially since there is no system to stop them,” Alqunun said.

“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,” she added.


Alqunun fled her family while visiting Kuwait before flying to Bangkok. Once there, she barricaded herself in an airport hotel to avoid deportation and tweeted about her situation.

On Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced that Canada would accept Alqunun as a refugee. Her situation has highlighted the cause 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.

Alqunun said she felt “like I was born again” when she was met at Toronto airport on Saturday by Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland.

“It was something amazing. There was a lot of love and hospitality, especially when the minister welcomed me and told me I was in a safe country and had all my rights,” Alqunun said.

Alqunun said she was upset by news that her family had issued a statement saying they disowned her.

“How could my family disown me simply because I wanted to be independent and escape their abuse? It really upset me,” Alqunun said.

When asked why she had fled her homeland, Alqunun replied: “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.”


Several other countries, including Australia, had been in talks with the U.N.’s refugee agency to accept Alqunun before she flew to Canada.

Australian media reported that UNHCR had withdrawn its referral for Alqunun to be resettled in Australia because Canberra was taking too long to decide on her asylum.

Story: Rod McGuirk