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For teen who fled Saudi Arabia, a new life in Canada starts with a new name

Rahaf Mohammed makes a public statement in Toronto, Tuesday, Jan. 15, 2019. (Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press via AP)

From now on, she will be known as Rahaf Mohammed.

The Saudi teenager, who fled Saudi Arabia for Thailand and was later granted asylum in Canada, has decided to drop her surname, Alqunun, and use her former middle name, Mohammed. Her decision was announced Tuesday at a news conference in Toronto, where Mohammed read a statement from a piece of paper.

“I would like to start by saying thank you,” she said. “I am one of the lucky ones. I know there are unlucky women who disappeared after trying to escape or could not do anything to change their reality."

The 18-year-old’s escape during a family holiday in Kuwait drew worldwide attention. Mohammed flew to Australia and then to Thailand, where she barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room, opened a Twitter account and started to write. She posted that family members had threatened to kill her, that she was abused and treated like a slave.

Her pleas caught the attention of activists and the United Nations refugee agency. She was thought to be headed for Australia, but Canada stepped in and granted her asylum. Mohammed landed in Toronto on Saturday and was greeted by Canada’s foreign minister, Chrystia Freeland. Presenting the exhausted young woman to the media, Freeland called her “a very brave new Canadian."

Mohammed’s flight comes amid a diplomatic dispute between Ottawa and Riyadh over Canadian criticism of Saudi Arabia’s rights record, particularly a recent crackdown on women’s rights activists.

It also comes amid deepening global concern about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — a case that called attention to the global reach of Saudi Arabia’s leaders.

In her first interview since she left Bangkok, Mohammed called out the kingdom’s patriarchal guardianship laws and predicted that other women would try to escape.

“I think the number of women fleeing from Saudi administration abuse will increase,” she told Australia’s public broadcaster. “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 for now."

Mohammed’s outspoken criticism has already led to a denunciation from her family. The founder of a Saudi lobbying group in the United States has also warned Canada that there could be diplomatic consequences.

For now, Mohammed will try to block out the politics. At the news conference Tuesday, she closed by saying that she will not be conducting interviews for a while. “I want to start living a normal, private life, just like any other young woman in Canada,” she said. Though she still faces death threats and will need security, she wants to focus on studying English, she said, and building a new life.