Once a refugee, now a cabinet minister
Maryam Monsef is the new MP for the bellwether Ontario riding of Peterborough–Kawartha. On Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau elevated her to his 31-member cabinet — 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.
“The most we know is he was caught in a crossfire between the border of Iran and Afghanistan,” 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.
“That night, his dormitory was invaded, and he and his housemates were taken and never to be seen or heard from again,” she said. “I think that was an important wake-up call for the family.”
Monsef’s childhood was spent moving between Afghanistan and Iran.
“That is why the opportunity that I have now matters so much more. Because you can come from such a history … [and] have the opportunity to be part of the decision-making process that affects people’s lives so deeply. What a great honour that is, and what an incredible privilege.”
The Soviet invasion had ended up on Afghans’ doorsteps, and, like many others, Monsef’s 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 Monsef’s uncles.
“It’s not a dignified way of living,” the new MP told HuffPost. Her mother also taught English in their home and sometimes in a school, she added. “But that wasn’t enough to sustain her, because the Taliban didn’t support women or their education.”
'Brought up with so much love'
Her mother tried to “make life work” 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.
“I will tell you that we didn’t know that we were poor. We didn’t know that we didn't have a future. We were brought up with so much love and so much support…. We thought we had it all, and we didn’t feel a void of a father figure, because my grandfather filled that role for us.”
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.
The family claimed refugee status when they arrived in Canada, ending up in Peterborough, where Monsef’s uncle lived. She was 11.
“The grass is green, there are 40-something of bodies of water surrounding Peterborough, and people were nice and smiling, and there were robins out. I’d never seen a robin before.”
She described it as a “hardship” adapting to the new country. She was homesick and didn’t understand English. Everything was culturally foreign — 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 YMCA. She still volunteers at Casa Maria and the Y, she said.
“The volunteers and the neighbours … came into our lives and made us feel like we weren’t alone … that we had a community … that it was going to be OK, [and] that we belonged there,” she said. “Twenty 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.”
The single politician likes to joke that she’s “married” to Peterborough.
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 didn’t ask for the democratic institutions portfolio and seemed surprised to be given it. In an interview, she spoke more passionately about women’s issues, pay equity and violence against women than she did about changing the way senators are appointed or reforming the electoral system.
“Living in a democratic system is a gift,” she told HuffPost. “Democratic reform is a big and ambitious agenda that goes across many policy areas,” 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.
“All that hard work, all that sacrifice; it’s meant something.”