Maryam Monsef, Touted As Canada's First Afghan-Born Cabinet Minister, Was Born In Iran

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OTTAWA — Liberal MP Maryam 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 minister of democratic institutions, who will turn 32 on Nov. 7, 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."

maryam monsef
Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef speaks at a news conference in Ottawa on Dec. 3, 2015. (Photo: Adrian Wyld/CP)

"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," says the statement.

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

Monsef, born in 1984, says her parents fled Afghanistan as the security situation deteriorated, and that after her father's death her mother never talked about what Monsef calls "the unspeakable pain" of those early years.

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

'We were Afghan citizens'

"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."

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.

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

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."

Monsef's full statement:

"Today, The Globe and Mail published an article outlining that I was in fact born in Mashhad, Iran and not 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.

Because I know my story has resonated with many Canadians, I wanted to take the time today to clear any misconceptions this may have unintentionally caused.

In recent days, my mother told me for the first time that my sisters and I were in fact born in Mashhad, Iran, approximately 200 kilometers from the Afghan border.

Following my parents’ wedding in Herat, the local security situation became untenable. The town was severely damaged by war and thousands were killed. No longer safe in their home town, my parents decided not to take risks and went to Mashhad, Iran, where they could be safe – with the hope of soon returning to the place their families called home for generations. While we were technically safe in Iran, we did not hold any status there and like the thousands of other Afghan refugees, we were not afforded all of the same rights and privileges given to Iranian citizens. After my father’s death, we travelled back and forth between Afghanistan and Iran when the security situation permitted it.

My sisters and I asked my mother why she never told us we were born in Iran. She told us she did not think it mattered. 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.

Some survivors believe healing comes from telling their story; others cannot fathom revisiting the past. My mother never talked about the unspeakable pain that conflict and terror inflicted on her. This week my sisters and I asked her to re-live that pain.

Conflict has robbed me of a father and it has scarred my family and I for life. We thankfully found a welcoming home in Peterborough, Ontario, Canada, where we began the challenging and difficult process of resettlement.

Coming to Canada as a refugee - twenty years strong - and now a member of Cabinet in the 42nd Parliament – I feel a tremendous deal of responsibility in upholding all that this great country has allowed me to become. This includes accountability to the public and transparency.

Canada has played an important role in allowing me to become who I am today. It’s the only place I’ve ever truly felt I belonged, and I couldn’t be more proud to be Canadian."

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