News / Canada

Maryam Monsef, Canada's first Afghan cabinet minister, learns she was born in Iran

Monsef says she was born hundreds of kilometres away from the border after her parents fled Afghanistan.

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 14, 2016. Monsef, widely touted as Canada's first Afghan-born cabinet minister, has issued a statement saying she only recently learned from her mother that she was in fact born in Iran. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef answers a question during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday, June 14, 2016. Monsef, widely touted as Canada's first Afghan-born cabinet minister, has issued a statement saying she only recently learned from her mother that she was in fact born in Iran. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

OTTAWA — A longtime refugee advocate says stories such as that of Liberal MP Maryam Monsef are not uncommon as families fleeing war and violence reconstruct their past in a new land.

Monsef, widely touted as Canada's first Afghan-born cabinet minister, caused a stir in the capital Thursday when she issued a statement saying she only recently learned from her mother that she was in fact born in Iran.

The 31-year-old minister of democratic institutions says she and her two sisters never held Iranian citizenship and were always considered Afghan citizens, but she was not born in Herat, Afghanistan, "as I was led to believe for my whole life."

"It's fair to say I have experienced a range of emotions over the past few days as I have tried to understand this with my family," said the statement.

Monsef said she's learned she was actually born 200 kilometres from the Afghan border in Mashhad, Iran, in 1984.

The revelation — initially disclosed Thursday by the Globe and Mail newspaper — prompted NDP immigration critic Jenny Kwan to question what she called the "troubling" Liberal cabinet vetting process.

But Janet Dench, the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, told The Canadian Press that after years of refugee work, "I really don't understand the significance."

"To me it's like, 'Oh, she was born in a different month than she thought she was.' Why is this so exciting for us all?"

Unlike Canada, in most countries birth doesn't automatically confer citizenship, said Dench, and refugee movements back and forth across borders are simply a matter of survival.

"Seems to me that's part of the refugee experience," she said. "You're on the move, you have to hide certain things, stories are painful to tell."

Monsef, who was travelling Thursday in Atlantic Canada, elaborated little beyond her statement, only saying most of the reaction she has seen has been positive.

"There's been an outpouring of support and I do appreciate it," Monsef said Thursday night before attending an event in Prince Edward Island.

Monsef's public statement laid out the broad strokes of a life story that's remained consistent since she began her meteoric ascent as the rookie Liberal candidate in the formerly Conservative riding of Peterborough, Ont.

Profiles of Monsef since her appointment to cabinet last Nov. 4 have consistently referenced her family travelling back and forth across the Afghanistan-Iran border as the security situation allowed.

After her father died, Monsef's statement said, her mother never talked about "the unspeakable pain" of those early years. That silence ended when Monsef was confronted with the Globe's inquiries about where she was actually born; she in turn confronted her mother.

"She told us she did not think it mattered," Monsef said of her mother, Soriya Basir.

"We were Afghan citizens, as we were born to Afghan parents, and under Iranian law, we would not be considered Iranian citizens despite being born in that country."

The Monsefs came to Peterborough, Ont., as refugees in 1996 when Maryam was 11 years old.

Dench, who doesn't know the Monsefs and is not familiar with their case history, said the story seems all too common.

"Constantly you hear stories of how people, as they're growing up, the veil is lifted on certain things and they realize that certain parts of what they'd been told may have been to protect them," said the refugee advocate.

Monsef unwittingly listed Herat as her birthplace on her passport application, her office said Friday.

"Now that she has learned that this is incorrect, she will be taking steps to see how she can rectify this unintentional error," spokesman Jean-Bruno Villeneuve said in an email.

The Prime Minister's Office said Thursday that it "first learned of the information about Maryam Monsef's place of birth in Iran when it was brought to us recently by the Globe and Mail." 

And the Privy Council Office, the bureaucracy supporting cabinet, said potential ministers face "a rigorous vetting process" using information from the RCMP, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the Canada Revenue Agency and a bankruptcy and solvency check.

"The same process is in place for all members of cabinet in this government and has been in place for a number of years," said PCO spokesman Raymond Rivet.

As Liberal minister MaryAnn Mihychuk described the process Thursday, "for me they went through even my sock drawer, so it was pretty comprehensive from my point of view."

U.S. President Barack Obama, in an address to Parliament earlier this year, made a point of noting Monsef's Afghan heritage as a sign of Canada's inclusiveness.

"And we see the refugees who feel that they have a special duty to give back, and seize the opportunity of a new life," Obama told a joint session of Parliament on June 29.

"Like the girl who fled Afghanistan by donkey and camel and jet plane. And who remembers being greeted in this country by helping hands and the sounds of robins singing. And today she serves in this chamber and in the cabinet because Canada is her home."

With files from Teresa Wright in Charlottetown

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Note to readers: This is a corrected story. Some earlier versions said Monsef was born in 1985 and included an incorrect age.