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Saudi teen who fled her family and risked her life says she had nothing to lose

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A Saudi teen who arrived in Canada Saturday after fleeing her family says she needed to risk her life in order to live freely and be independent, and is very happy to be in Canada.

“I felt that I was reborn, especially when I felt the love and the welcome.”

Rahaf Mohammed al-Qunun, 18, told the CBC’s Susan Ormiston in an interview on Monday that she never thought there was even a one per cent chance that she would be able to come to Canada, or that people would be talking about her story around the world.

Mohammed — she has dropped “al-Qunun” from her name because her family has disowned her — claims she was physically and mentally abused by her family since she was 16 years old, and that she thought about escaping for years.

“I was exposed to physical violence, persecution, oppression, threats to be killed. I was locked in for six months,” she said, in Arabic, describing what happened after she cut her hair.

“I felt that I could not achieve my dreams that i wanted as long as I was still living in Saudi Arabia.”

Mohammed told the CBC’s Susan Ormiston she had since been disowned by her family. (Sylvia Thomson/CBC)

When she turned 18 she felt able to try to escape, she said, because she would be treated as an adult around the world, and that she would be able to make her own decisions.

She knew a family vacation to Kuwait in early January was her chance. “From awhile ago I was trying to convince my parents to go to Kuwait because as long as I’m in Saudi Arabia, I cannot leave. But once I’m in another country I can travel and it’s allowed,” she said. 

Mohammed said she waited until her family went to sleep early one night, the very last day of their trip, and then bought her ticket to Thailand and left the hotel room at 7 a.m.

But she was stopped at the airport in Bangkok. Mohammed was denied entry and had her passport seized. With the threat of being sent back to her family, she barricaded herself in a hotel room and used Twitter to plea for help.

“My greatest fear,” she said, “was if they [my family] find me, I would disappear and I wouldn’t know what would happen to me after that.” She even wrote a letter to her friends, because she says she was prepared to end her life in the hotel room before she would let herself be taken. 

“I wrote it and I sent it to my female friends, should I disappear they would publish it to the whole world.”

Her tweets and her case drew international attention, and Thai officials eventually agreed to let her stay in Bangkok under the protection of United Nations officials.

She said when the UN officials showed up at her hotel, she didn’t believe at first that it was true, that her pleas had been heard. She asked them to prove who they were. When they did, she said she broke down and cried. That was the moment she began to believe that what she had done might have worked. 

Still, as happy as she is to be free, to be in Canada (despite the cold, she said), Mohammed is clearly upset that it has meant losing her family. She said she received a message from them, telling her she was disobeient and now disowned. She started to cry during the interview, saying she didn’t expect that. She said she is very sad, so sad that she can’t even talk about it. 

Mohammed speaks with Thai Immigration Police Chief Surachet Hakparn, right, and an unidentified UN official at a hotel inside the Suvarnabhumi international airport on the outskirts of Bangkok, Thailand, on Jan. 7. (Thai Immigration Bureau/EFE/EPA)

Saudi Arabia ranks among the worst countries for women’s rights and equality. The World Economic Forum ranked it 141 out of 149 in its 2018 report on gender equality. Mohammed said she endured daily oppression and violence from her mother and brother. Her father, she said, did not live with the family, but still exerted control over her in terms of what she could study and where she could work. 

Mohammed said now that she is in Canada, she is going to do all the things she hasn’t been able to do before: explore, study, learn English and get a job.

She also wants to continue to be a voice for the women still in Saudi Arabia, but she also hopes that they will fight for changes themselves. She said she knows many women who have fled Saudi Arabia, but added she wouldn’t encourage women to do it, as they would be putting their lives at risk. She wants them to fight. 

But if nothing changes, she said, escape.

Mohammed, centre, stands with Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland, right, as she arrives at Toronto Pearson International Airport, on Saturday. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

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List of Tourist Attractions Open Now in Ottawa

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With Ontario now in Step 3 of 2021 three-step plan for reopening, museums and other indoor attractions are allowed to reopen with capacity limited to not exceed 50 per cent capacity indoors and 75 per cent capacity outdoors.

Here is a list of Ottawa attractions you can visit starting July 16th.

Do remember to wear masks and buy tickets in advance.

Parliament Hill

Parliament’s Centre Block and Peace Tower are closed for renovation.

You can join for tours of the Senate of Canada Building (2 Rideau Street), House of Commons at West Block (111 Wellington Street) on Parliament Hill, and East Block at East Block (111 Wellington Street) on Parliament Hill.

When: Grounds open; guided tours of Parliament are suspended through the summer of 2021.
Where: 111 Wellington Street, Downtown Ottawa

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Ottawa performer leapfrogs from gymnastics to Broadway to TV

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A new AppleTV+ series set in a magical town that’s stuck in a neverending 1940s musical includes a pair of Ottawa siblings in the cast. 

Warren Yang and his sister, Ericka Hunter, play two of the singing, dancing residents of the village portrayed in Schmigadoon!, a small-screen series that takes its cues from classic musicals like Brigadoon, Wizard of Oz and Sound of Music, and skewers them with the offbeat comedic mastery of Saturday Night Live. 

In fact, you’ll recognize many of the names from SNL, starting with executive producer Lorne Michaels, creator of the late-night, live-comedy sketch show. Schmigadoon! also stars SNL cast member Cecily Strong and comedian Keegan-Michael Key, who hosted SNL in May. They play a New York couple who get lost on a hike and stumble into a strange town where everyone sings and dances. 

For Yang, a relative newcomer to show-biz, the series marks his television debut. For Hunter, the younger of his two older sisters, it’s the latest in a career path that began with dance lessons as a child more than 30 years ago. She attended Canterbury High School, Ottawa’s arts-focused secondary school. 

“Her dream was always to perform,” said Yang, 34, in an interview. “But that was never the path I thought was an option for me.” 

While his sister studied dance, Yang did gymnastics. He was an elite gymnast throughout his youth, ultimately leaving Merivale High School at 16 to train in Montreal, finishing high school through correspondence courses. He was a member of the Canadian National Team and received a scholarship to study at Penn State, majoring in marketing. 

A few years after graduation, Yang was working at an advertising agency in Toronto when he got a call from a Manhattan number. To his astonishment, they asked if he would be interested in auditioning for a Broadway revival of Miss Saigon.

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COVID-19: uOttawa to require vaccination for students living in residence

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Vaccination will be mandatory for students who want to live in residence at the University of Ottawa this year, with proof of vaccination and at least one dose required before move-in, or within two weeks of doing so if they can’t secure a shot before arriving.

Those who can’t receive a vaccine for “health-related reasons or other grounds protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code” will be able to submit a request for accommodation through the university’s housing portal, according to information on the university’s website.

Students with one dose living in residence will also have to receive their second dose “within the timeframe recommended by Ottawa Public Health.”

People who haven’t been granted an exemption and don’t get vaccinated or submit proof of having done so by the deadlines set out by the school will have their residence agreements terminated, uOttawa warns.

“Medical and health professionals are clear that vaccination is the most (effective) means of protecting people and those around them,” reads a statement provided to this newspaper by uOttawa’s director of strategic communications, Patrick Charette.

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“It is precisely for this reason that the University of Ottawa is requiring all students living in residence for the 2021-2022 academic year to be fully vaccinated. The University recognizes that some students may require accommodations for a variety of reasons and will be treating exceptions appropriately.”

Faculty, staff and students are also strongly encouraged to get vaccinated, the statement notes.

“Ensuring a high vaccine coverage in all communities is critical to ensuring an ongoing decline in cases and ending the pandemic. This will be especially important with the return of students to post-secondary institutions in our region in the fall of 2021.”

Neither Carleton University nor Algonquin College is currently mandating vaccination for students living in residence, according to the websites for both schools. But uOttawa isn’t alone in its policy – Western University, Trent University, Durham College and Fanshawe College have all implemented similar requirements. Seneca College, in the GTA, is going even further, making vaccination mandatory for students and staff to come to campus, in-person, for the fall term.

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