Maryam Monsef confirms she was born in Iran, not Afghanistan

Maryam Monsef, Canada's minister of democratic institutions, is compelled to explain that she was not born in Afghanistan, as previously believed. She recently learned that she was born in Iran.

'My mother told me for the first time that my sisters and I were in fact born in Mashhad'

Democratic Institutions Minister Maryam Monsef says she recently learned she was born in Iran, not Afghanistan. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Maryam Monsef, Canada's minister of democratic institutions, was compelled to explain on Thursday morning that she was not born in Afghanistan, as previously believed.

As first reported by the Globe and Mail, Monsef recently learned that she was born in Iran. 

"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 kilometres from the Afghan border," Monsef explained in a statement.

"Following my parents' wedding in Herat, the local security situation became untenable," she said. "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.​

Monsef discusses her country of birth

7 years ago
Duration 1:09
Featured VideoMinister of Democratic Institutions, Maryam Monsef, talks about how she feels to learn that she was actually born in Iran and not Afghanistan.

"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."​

The minister's story of coming to Canada as a refugee was widely noted after she was appointed to cabinet last fall. Barack Obama invoked her journey to Canada and subsequent success when he addressed Parliament in June.

Monsef says she and her sisters asked their mother why she had not told them the truth earlier.

"She told us she did not think it mattered," the minister said. 

Father killed

"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."

In her statement, the minister explained the trauma she and her family experienced. Her father was killed near the border between Afghanistan and Iran in 1988.

"Some survivors believe healing comes from telling their story; others cannot fathom revisiting the past," Monsef said.

"My mother never talked about the unspeakable pain that conflict and terror inflicted on her. This week my sisters and I asked her to relive 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."

Range of emotions

Reached in Prince Edward Island, where she is on a tour of Atlantic Canada to consult with Canadians about reforming the electoral system, Monsef was visibly emotional. 

"I'm experiencing a wide range of emotions over the past week and especially today," she said. "There's been an outpouring of support and I appreciate it. 

"What's getting me excited about life, and all the reasons my mom gave up everything to come here, is the fact that I have an opportunity to be in that room, with these people, to have a conversation about electoral reform."

Monsef went on to say her family was not able to settle in Iran because they "were not recognized as Afghan citizens in that country, as is the case for many relatives and family friends who still live there as refugees."

Questions emerge about vetting process

In response to further questions, a spokesman for the minister told CBC News that Monsef listed Herat, Afghanistan, as her place of birth when she applied for a Canadian passport and will now be taking steps to rectify that error.

In a series of tweets on Thursday morning, Conservative MP Michelle Rempel raised questions about Monsef's refugee application and passport and about her screening before being appointed to cabinet. 

Speaking to reporters after question period, NDP MPs Charlie Angus and Jenny Kwan also said the revelation raises questions about the vetting of cabinet ministers.

Raymond Rivet, a spokesman for the Privy Council Office, said the same vetting process is in place for all members of cabinet, which has been the case "for a number of years."

"Cabinet ministers go through a rigorous vetting process that takes into account information from the RCMP, CSIS, CRA and a bankruptcy and insolvency check."
The European Resettlement Network has reported that there are more than 800,000 Afghan refugees in Iran, the majority of whom have been there since the Soviet-Afghan war in the 1980s.