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Teen who fled Saudi relatives is granted asylum in Canada

A Saudi teenager who garnered worldwide attention after fleeing her family, saying she feared for her life, has landed in Canada after being granted asylum.

Eighteen-year-old Rahaf Alqunun was welcomed at Toronto’s airport on Saturday after a week of questions about her fate.

Last week, Alqunun escaped from her family during a holiday trip to Kuwait and flew to Thailand, with the hopes of then seeking asylum in Australia. Alqunun said she was afraid her family would kill her since she renounced Islam. Upon arrival in Bangkok, however, officials seized her passport and threatened to deport her back to Kuwait.

She barricaded herself in her hotel room to avoid being sent back, and with the help of three of her friends, shared her story on social media and quickly got the world’s attention after news of her plight went viral.

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Alqunun demanded to meet with representatives of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and missed her scheduled flight back to Kuwait. After two days, she was officially allowed to enter Thailand and was processed as a refugee by the UN refugee agency. Alqunun’s brother and father flew to Thailand on Monday, but she refused to meet with them and said their arrival scared her.

On Friday, Canada accepted a request from the agency to resettle her there. Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland said her resettlement was part of Canada’s “policy of supporting women and girls around the world.” Freeland greeted Alqunun at Toronto’s airport and called her “a very brave new Canadian.”

Alqunun’s case has shed further light on the problems with Saudi Arabia’s male guardianship system.

In Saudi Arabia, the male guardianship system affects nearly every aspect of women’s lives. Women need permission from a male guardian — like their father, brother, husband, or son — to do things like get a job, marry, get a passport, and travel. The restrictions make it hard for victims of domestic violence to seek safety.

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Alqunun said that her family members physically and psychological abused her and threatened to kill her “for the most trivial things.”

One of Alqunun’s friends, who herself fled Saudi Arabia two years ago and now lives in Sweden, told The Washington Post that after Alqunun’s family once locked her up for months to punish her for cutting her hair short.

“It’s obvious that the oppression of women is not a problem that can be resolved in a day, but rather than cursing the darkness we believe in lighting a single candle,” Freeland said on Saturday. “Where we can save a single woman, a single person that’s a good thing to do.”

Alqunun’s Twitter account was temporarily deactivated on Friday, due to what her supporters said was a deluge of death threats, but she later reactivated it and thanked her followers for their support.

In stark contrast to Canada, the United States has drastically cut the number of admitted refugees in the last two years. The Trump administration set the refugee cap to just 30,000 people for the 2019 fiscal year, the lowest since the refugee program’s creation in 1980 and a sharp drop from the 45,000 limit in 2018. For comparison, under former President Barack Obama, the refugee cap was set at 85,000 people for 2016.

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The administration has also created stricter vetting for refugees from 11 countries, the majority of which are based in the Middle East and North Africa, and banned immigration from Iran, Libya, North Korea, Syria, and Yemen as part of his travel ban.

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