As It Happens

Canadian family describes their mother's 'terrifying' escape from Iran

Last month, Maryam Mombein finally made it home to Canada after being trapped in Iran for 582 days. Now for the first time, the Iranian-Canadian family is telling the story behind that escape.

Maryam Mombeini was trapped in Iran for 582 days after her husband died in Tehran's Evin prison

Mehran Seyed-Emami, left, Maryam Mombeini, centre, and Ramin Seyed-Emami, right, are pictured after being reunited at Vancouver International Airport on Oct. 11, 2019. (Ramin Seyed-Emami/Twitter)

Ramin Seyed-Emami screamed for joy when his mother's plane took off from the airport in Tehran. 

He and his brother Mehran were in Vancouver, listening intently on the phone as their mother Maryam Mombein went through airport security, her cellphone tucked into her pocket.

They watched her on video chat after she boarded the plane, terrified that security guards would step in at any minute to stop her. The video cut off when the flight ascended into the clouds. 

"It was just such a relief. I couldn't stop crying. I couldn't stop screaming that she's just out," Seyed-Emami told As It Happens host Carol Off. "I think my neighbours probably thought I was crazy, I was screaming so loud."

Mombeini had been stranded in Iran for 582 days after authorities barred her from fleeing. She is the widow of Canadian-Iranian professor Kavous Seyed-Emami, who died mysteriously in Iran's Evin Prison after being arrested on unsubstantiated spying allegations. 

But last month, her children quietly helped her get out. It was a daring plan that could have failed at any moment, but she ultimately made it home to Vancouver. Now for the first time, the Iranian-Canadian family is telling the story behind that escape — first to the Globe and Mail, which broke the story, and then to CBC Radio's As It Happens.

'Last act of selfless and unconditional love'

The family's ordeal began in January 2018, when their father, an acclaimed environmentalist who co-founded the Persian Wildlife Heritage Foundation, was arrested with six other activists and accused of spying.

He died in prison less than two weeks later. Authorities claimed he took his own life, but the family believes he was killed. 

They spoke out about their father's death, demanding an investigation. The story made international headlines. For that, they say, they faced threats and were the target of a nationally televised "smear campaign." 

So in March 2018, they decided to leave Iran for their safety. It should have been easy. All three have dual Canadian-Iranian citizenship.

This undated photo provided by the family of the late Iranian-Canadian professor Kavous Seyed-Emami, shows him, right, and his wife, Mombeini. (Family of Kavous Seyed-Emami/The Associated Press)

But when they were at the airport, authorities stopped their mother from boarding the flight. They confiscated her Canadian passport and issued a travel ban against her. The two sons were permitted to leave. 

"In her last act of selfless and unconditional love, she just literally pushed us onto that plane and told us just go and be safe and try to help her from abroad," Seyed-Emami said.

"And I had to live with that guilt for 582 days knowing that I left my mother in such a dangerous circumstance, and it killed me."

'We told her to just go to the airport'

The next 18 months were a bureaucratic nightmare for the family. Iran repeatedly extended the travel ban against Mombeini, while her sons pleaded her case to the media and government officials.

Then-foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland became involved, but was unable to make any headway due to Canada's fraught relationship with the Iranian regime

"It's crazy because even ... when my mom was interrogated several times during the past two years, they would even say: 'Don't think your powerful friends in the West can help you,'" Seyed-Emami said.

Still, he's grateful to Freeland, who he says regularly checked up on his mother throughout the ordeal. As It Happens has reached out to her office for comment.

Freeland was named deputy prime minister intergovernmental affairs minister in a cabinet shuffle on Wednesday.

Ramin and Mehran Seyed-Emami fought tooth and nail to get their mother out of Iran. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Everything changed one day for Mombeini when she checked on her travel ban status and learned there was another reason she couldn't fly to Canada — her passport had expired.

On a whim, her sons told her to apply for a new one. They thought for sure her application would be denied. But two weeks later, it arrived in the mail. 

"As soon as she got the passport, we told her to just go to the airport," Seyed-Emami said.

Mombeini immediately grabbed her purse and a carry-on bag and headed out. Her sons booked her the first flight out of the country they could find. She was headed to Istanbul. 

They didn't tell anyone — except Global Affairs Canada — what they were doing. Mombeini kept her phone in her pocket as she made her way through security, the call connected to the brothers so they could listen in.

"It was terrifying because we were just waiting for any moment a security officer to come and take her away," Seyed-Emami said.

But to everyone's amazement, it worked. When Mombeini landed in Istabul, she was greeted by Canadian officials, who accompanied her back to Vancouver.

On Oct. 11, she was reunited at the Vancouver airport with her two sons and their dogs.

"It's a wonderful feeling," Seyed-Emami said.

  • Watch: Maryam Mombeini reuined with her sons

Iranian-Canadian mother and sons reunite at Vancouver airport after 18 months apart

3 years ago
Duration 0:47
An Iranian-Canadian woman whose husband died in an Iranian jail was reunited with her sons in Vancouver on Oct. 11, 2019, more than a year after she was separated from them at Tehran's airport.

To this day, the family has no idea why this simple plan worked.

"Either we fell somehow through the bureaucratic cracks of the system, or there was someone inside who sympathized with our cause. Because nobody took credit for it, and maybe silently someone inside did decide to help us out and let her leave," Seyed-Emami said.

"I don't know if we'll ever know the truth."

He said they also may never know what happened to their father.

Although he said he hopes someone will eventually be brought to justice for his death, he has other things to focus on right now. 

"For us to move on together as a family, we can't carry this burden of anger and hatred and resentment the rest of our lives," he said.

 "I've always said that the best revenge is to live a happy life."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from CBC News. Interview with Ramin Seyed-Emami produced by Jeanne Armstrong.


  • This story has been updated to note that Chrystia Freeland is no longer Canada's foreign affairs minister.
    Nov 20, 2019 5:49 PM ET