When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau added Maryam Monsef to his Cabinet last year, his government touted her as the country’s first Afghan-born member of Parliament. President Obama also singled out her story when he addressed the Canadian House of Commons in June.
Monsef herself made her Afghan roots a key part of her narrative when she ran for a seat in Parliament in 2015. She was born in Herat, Afghanistan, she said, and came to Canada as a refugee at age 11 with her widowed mother and two younger sisters.
But last week, it emerged that the lawmaker was actually born in Iran, raising questions about the validity of Monsef’s Canadian citizenship and ability to hold office. She is the minister of democratic institutions.
The Globe and Mail newspaper published a story Thursday saying that Monsef was born in Mashhad, an Iranian city with a large Afghan population about 124 miles from the Afghanistan border, and spent most of her early childhood there.
In a statement, Monsef said that she was shocked at the revelation, and that her mother, Soriya Basir, only told her that she was born in Iran after the newspaper contacted Monsef for the story.
“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,” Monsef said in the statement.
“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.”
An estimated 3 million Afghans live as refugees in Iran, although approximately only 1 million are documented. The first waves of Afghans crossed into Iran during the Soviet occupation of their country in the 1980s, which unleashed an insurrection by Afghan rebels, financed by the United States and other Western powers to undermine the Soviet Union.
A biographical timeline provided by Monsef’s office noted that a child born in Iran only gains citizenship if the father is Iranian.
If Basir told Canadian immigration officials that Monsef was born in Afghanistan, it could be grounds to revoke the minister’s citizenship, said Ontario Conservative Member of Parliament Tony Clement, who is running for the leadership of the Official Opposition Conservative Party of Canada.
“The question is, should a Cabinet minister or an MP get more favorable treatment than the average citizen? Or should we revise the Citizenship Act?” said Toronto immigration lawyer Guidy Mamann. “Because when it applies to the average Joe who’s made innocent mistakes on a citizenship application, it hurts them considerably and it ultimately results in them losing their citizenship.”
The original asylum claim hasn’t been made public, and it is not clear what country Basir listed as her daughter’s birthplace. Monsef’s Canadian passport says that she was born in Herat, Afghanistan.
Jean-Bruno Villeneuve, Monsef’s press secretary, said she would be correcting that information. He said that Monsef has been “very forthcoming” about her personal story based on the recent revelations from her mother. Villeneuve said Monsef was traveling and unavailable to comment.
There is disagreement about whether Monsef’s Canadian citizenship could be in jeopardy, even if it turns out that her mother misrepresented her birthplace on the asylum claim. “Whether or not she was born in Iran is irrelevant,” Peter Showler, former chair of Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Board, told Macleans magazine. “The only country for which she had citizenship was Afghanistan, and that is the country from which she feared persecution.”
In her statement, Monsef said that her parents moved to Mashhad after Herat became too dangerous to live in shortly after their marriage in 1982. “The town was severely damaged by war and thousands were killed,” she said in the statement.
Monsef and her sisters were born in Mashhad and lived there until she was nine, according to the timeline from the minister’s office. Her father, Abdul Samad Monsefzadeh, who sold car parts, was killed in 1988 while trying to save a cousin at the Afghan-Iranian border — either, Monsef’s mother recently told her, by bandits or by Soviet troops. The family traveled back and forth between Afghanistan and Iran after his death.
But after the Taliban took control of Herat two years later, Basir sought to join her brother in Canada. In early 1996, the family began a four-month journey — traveling by foot, donkey and motorcycle back to Mashhad, then by bus and camel to Islamabad, Pakistan, and eventually flying to Canada by way of Jordan. They arrived in Montreal and sought asylum in May of that year.
The family settled in Peterborough, an Ontario city about 75 miles northeast of Toronto, and which Monsef now represents for the governing Liberals in the House of Commons.
Although Clement, the conservative MP, acknowledged that Monsef is an “upstanding citizen,” he said her case illustrates “gaps” in the Canadian vetting process for immigrants and refugees, and the screening process to determine her suitability to serve in the federal government’s Cabinet.
Clement also expressed skepticism that Monsef wouldn’t know facts surrounding her early childhood, and cast doubt on her revised biography. It “doesn’t ring true in terms of plausibility,” he said.
He called for Monsef to step aside from her ministerial duties until an investigation could be completed.
Dean Del Mastro, the former Conservative MP for the federal district in Peterborough that Monsef now represents in the House, wrote on Facebook on Thursday that he had “known the truth regarding her birthplace as well as many other things as yet unreported for several years” through a “former close personal friend” of Monsef. Del Mastro later removed the comments.
Patti Peeters, a former Peterborough city councilor who ran against Monsef when they both unsuccessfully contested the city’s mayoralty in 2014, said that she and other candidates were “brown enveloped” with information that indicated Monsef was born in Iran.
“It was common knowledge,” said Peeters, a former Liberal Party of Canada supporter.
“This is only the tip of the iceberg, and she’s using her mother as a scapegoat — and I absolutely resent that.”
Guly is a special correspondent. Times staff writer Shashank Bengali contributed reporting from Mumbai, India.