Rahaf Mohammed, the 18-year-old from Saudi Arabia whose efforts to flee to Canada as a refugee captured global attention this month, will be retreating from the public eye as she resettles, Ms. Mohammed confirmed in a public statement to throngs of reporters in Toronto on Tuesday.
“I would like to start living a normal, private life,” said the teenager – who has dropped her family name, al-Qunun, since her family has reportedly severed ties over social media. Ms. Mohammed has alleged abuse at the hands of her family members in Saudi Arabia but did not elaborate on those allegations in a statement delivered in Arabic, then repeated by an English translator.
She said instead that she was “not treated respectfully” by her family and denied the ability to make her own decisions. She would like to now live “like any other young woman” in Canada.
Story continues below advertisement
But the new reality for Ms. Mohammed is far from the anonymous integration of many asylum seekers and refugees to Canada. It comes at the end of a high-profile ordeal, which began when she fled her family during a visit to Kuwait earlier this month. She flew to Thailand, where she told officials she feared her family would kill her if she was returned to Saudi Arabia. Denied entry to Bangkok, Ms. Mohammed barricaded herself in an airport hotel room, taking to Twitter to appeal for help. From there, her plight gained global attention, and at the request of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, she was granted asylum to Canada, according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Canada’s decision to grant the teen asylum has not yet drawn an official response from the Saudi government, whose relationship with Ottawa has been frayed since a diplomatic spat erupted in August.
Now, social media has become a minefield for the 18-year-old, who is faced with online threats.
“She has taken a position that some take issue with,” Mario Calla, executive director of the immigrant services agency COSTI, told reporters. Sometimes, Ms. Mohammed feels safe, he said. Other times, less so. She’s never left alone: a COSTI staff member is with her at all times. The agency hired a private security guard, who protects her current place of residence and was milling about the crowd on Tuesday morning. “Frankly, this happened so quickly, we hired the guards, and we will talk to the federal government,” Mr. Calla told reporters about the price tag on Ms. Mohammed’s security. “I’m sure they’ll cover it.” If not, he says the agency will foot the bill.
The organization has had to hire private security before, including when safety concerns arose in some of the hotel lodgings the government has arranged for refugees and asylum seekers, he said. He acknowledged that fears about security may be a long-term problem for Ms. Mohammed. COSTI staff are working to inform her about the risks she faces. Additionally, they’re considering setting her up with a family, so she doesn’t have to live alone in Canada. “She feels safe because she knows she’s in a safe country. She sees the people around her have her best interests at heart, they’re trying to help her,” Mr. Calla said. “At the same time, she sees these threats because she has left Islam, she has basically broken away from her family, and so on. That scares her. Her emotions go back and forth.”
Though Ms. Mohammed’s case played out quickly, it isn’t the only one of its kind. COSTI sees an average of two, and sometimes up to five, urgent protection cases per year, Mr. Calla said. The federal government will expedite situations where loss of time may mean “dire consequences,” he explained, offering domestic violence-related cases as an example.
The teen isn’t receiving any psychological support right now, but the agency plans to assess that need moving forward. Mr. Calla isn’t aware of any direct contact from Ms. Mohammed’s family, nor the Saudi Arabian embassy, and couldn’t confirm the authenticity of a family statement quoted by media outlets.
According to The Canadian Press, the head of Saudi Arabia’s state-controlled human rights commission was 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. The Canadian Press quoted Mufleh Al-Qahtani, the head of the Saudi National Society for Human Rights, as saying 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.”