Maryam Monsef is sworn in as the minister of democratic institutions on Wednesday.
Canadaâs newest democratic institutions minister is a 30-year-old woman who fled Afghanistan with her widowed mother and two sisters when she was a child.
Maryam Monsef is the new MP for the bellwether Ontario riding of PeterboroughâKawartha. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau elevated her to his 31-member cabinet â making her the youngest minister and the fourth-youngest ever.
Monsef was born in Afghanistan and raised in the western city of Herat, near the Iranian border. She lost her father when she was a toddler and both her sisters were under the age of two. Her mother was in her 20s. No one knows for certain what happened to her father, Monsef told The Huffington Post Canada Tuesday in a phone interview from Peterborough.
âThe most we know is he was caught in a crossfire between the border of Iran and Afghanistan,â she said.
Years earlier, before she was born, she said, her uncle had been abducted from his dorm room at Kabul University. A third-year pharmaceutical student, he was politically vocal and had been heard making anti-communist remarks on a bus, she said.
âThat night, his dormitory was invaded, and he and his housemates were taken and never to be seen or heard from again,â she said. âI think that was an important wake-up call for the family.â
Peterborough-Kawartha MP Maryam Monsef flanked by her sister Mehrangiz and mother Soriya Basir on the left and sister Mina on the right.
Monsefâs childhood was spent moving between Afghanistan and Iran.
âThat is why the opportunity that I have now matters so much more. Because you can come from such a history âŠ [and] have the opportunity to be part of the decision-making process that affects peopleâs lives so deeply. What a great honour that is, and what an incredible privilege.â
The Soviet invasion had ended up on Afghansâ doorsteps, and, like many others, Monsefâs family crissed-crossed the border hoping the conflict would end, she said. Her mother made a living cooking, cleaning, sewing and knitting, with some support from Monsefâs uncles.
âItâs not a dignified way of living,â the new MP told HuffPost. Her mother also taught English in their home and sometimes in a school, she added. âBut that wasnât enough to sustain her, because the Taliban didnât support women or their education.â
'... brought up with so much love'
Her mother tried to âmake life workâ while in Iran, but her family wasn't welcome there. Other kids teased her and her sisters. As illegal refugees, she said, they also lived under the constant threat of deportation.
âI will tell you that we didnât know that we were poor. We didnât know that we didn't have a future. We were brought up with so much love and so much supportâŠ. We thought we had it all, and we didnât feel a void of a father figure, because my grandfather filled that role for us.â
In 1996, her mother chose to leave her support system and her culture behind to come to Canada. The journey, Monsef recalled, involved donkeys, camels, and airplanes. It took her through Iran, Pakistan, and Jordan, she said, and all the while, she and her sisters had chickenpox.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau poses for a photo with Peterborough-Kawartha MP Maryam Monsef and her mother Soriya Basir during the federal election campaign.
The family claimed refugee status when they arrived in Canada, ending up in Peterborough, where Monsefâs uncle lived. She was 11.
âThe grass is green, there are 40-something of bodies of water surrounding Peterborough, and people were nice and smiling, and there were robins out. Iâd never seen a robin before.â
She described it as a âhardshipâ adapting to the new country. She was homesick and didnât understand English. Everything was culturally foreign â even the housing. She laughs when describing going through puberty and trying to fit in her new home.
Several community groups and social services helped her family integrate and provided a safety net, including the food bank, the Salvation Army, the New Canadians Centre, Casa Maria Refugee Homes and the YWCA. She still volunteers at Casa Maria and the Y, she said.
âThe volunteers and the neighbours âŠ came into our lives and made us feel like we werenât alone âŠ that we had a community âŠ that it was going to be OK, [and] that we belonged there,â she said. âTwenty years later ... that kindness stays with me, and I hope that as a member of Parliament, I can repay some of that through my service.â
The single politician likes to joke that sheâs âmarriedâ to Peterborough.
Maryam Monsef poses on Parliament Hill on Oct. 27.
In 2014, at 29, Monsef ran unsuccessfully to be mayor of Peterborough. On Oct. 19, after knocking on 70,000 doors, she rode the Liberal wave and was elected as a first-time MP.
But her big job begins Wednesday, after she is sworn in as a Privy Council member, and attends her first cabinet meeting.
Monsef didnât ask for the democratic institutions portfolio and seemed surprised to be given it. In an interview, she spoke more passionately about womenâs issues, pay equity and violence against women than she did about changing the way senators are appointed or reforming the electoral system.
âLiving in a democratic system is a gift,â she told HuffPost. âDemocratic reform is a big and ambitious agenda that goes across many policy areas,â she said, promising to speak more about it later.
For now, Monsef is content to represent Peterborough federally. And her mother is very proud of her.
âAll that hard work, all that sacrifice; itâs meant something.â
CLARIFICATION - Sept. 22, 2016: MP Maryam Monsef issued a statement that she recently learned from her mother that she was in fact born in Iran, and not Afghanistan.
Monsef's mother said she felt it didn't matter to tell her daughters because under Iranian law, they were born to Afghan parents and not considered Iranian citizens.
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