More than 10,000 kilometres away from home in Saudi Arabia, Rahaf Mohammed Alqunun pauses when asked about the family from whom she fled.
Then the tears come.
“I felt so sad. It was hard. I didn’t expect my family to disown me,” Rahaf, 18, says during an exclusive interview Monday with the Star and CBC.
Sitting in a small office at a Toronto immigrant settlement agency, the Saudi teen’s voice cracks with emotion as she talks about the family she plotted for years to escape, alleging they subjected her to both physical and mental abuse — and ultimately led to her being granted refuge in Canada.
The scene is in stark contrast to the confident young woman who smiled and waved at supporters at Pearson International Airport Saturday, when she arrived in Canada after a tumultuous week that began with her fleeing from her family during a trip to Kuwait.
Wearing a white sweater and torn jeans, attire not atypical for teenagers, a still tired-looking Rahaf says she had long planned her escape once turning 18, an age that would allow her to be recognized and treated as a free adult woman in the West.
Rahaf, who has dropped her last name after learning on social media her family has disowned her, alleges she faced physical violence at the hands of her mother and brother — claims her family have denied. Rahaf says her father is married to another woman, with whom he lives, but was her legal guardian.
For Rahaf, the last straw came when she cut her hair really short and was “locked up” in the house for looking too manly for a Muslim woman.
“(I) got beat up for not praying and not helping around the house. It’s daily oppression,” Rahaf claimed, through an interpreter. “We are treated as an object, like a slave. We could not make decisions about what we want.”
Rahaf, who is from Ha’il in northwestern Saudi Arabia, said she convinced her family to take a trip to Kuwait, where she knew society is less oppressive for women and that, unlike her homeland, she could travel alone without her parents’ permission.
Rahaf managed to purchase a plane ticket and escaped to Thailand, with the hopes of travelling from there to Australia, but the plan quickly fell apart when she was picked up by Thai authorities as a runaway.
“I was scared of being captured, arrested and sent back home, and no one would know anything about (me),” said Rahaf, who believed, if sent back to Saudi Arabia, her life would be in danger for dishonouring her family and Islam.
Upon her arrival in Bangkok, she said she was accosted by a man who offered to help her obtain a visa to remain in Thailand. But after taking her passport, the man allegedly told her he was acting for Saudi officials and intended to bring her back to her family.
While her father and brother were en route to retrieve her in Thailand, Rahaf said she contemplated ending her life and began scribbling a letter to her friends, telling them she feared for her life and imploring them to publicize her story if she disappeared.
In the meantime, she turned to Twitter, pleading for help from the German, Swedish and Australian embassies.
“My life was in danger and I felt I had nothing to lose. I wanted to tell people my story and about what happens to Saudi women,” said Rahaf, who at one point used her mattress to block the door to stop officials from entering her hotel room.
Her tweets not only garnered international media headlines, but also drew the attention of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which dispatched a team to the hotel and conducted a thorough emergency assessment of the situation to determine if Rahaf was in need of protection by a third country given her pending deportation to Saudi Arabia.
She was skeptical at first, thinking the UNHCR’s offer of help was a ruse by local officials to lure her out of her hotel room. She “started to cry” when she saw proof that they were legitimate.
Rahaf said it was surreal when she eventually got a permit Friday to come to Canada as a government assisted refugee.
“I never thought there was a 1 per cent chance that this could happen,” noted Rahaf, who got her first real sleep in days while on board the flight to Canada. “I feel very safe in Canada, a country that respects human rights.”
Her first impression of her new home is that it’s frigid, but that Canadians are warm.
“I feel very happy. I feel born again from feeling the love coming from everyone waiting for my arrival,” said Rahaf. “I want to tell them I love them.”
But along with love, there is also hate. Rahaf said she has received hundreds of threats and insults from online trolls.
Despite the taunts, she treasures her newly found freedom.
“It’s worth risking my life for,” said Rahaf, who plans to start English classes, go back to school, find a job and make a life for herself in her adopted homeland. “It’s a beautiful feeling.”
Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung