by Ferry de Kerckhove
The Globe and Mail
September 27, 2016
Many people have expressed sympathy for Maryam Monsef, the federal Minister for Democratic Institutions, since the disclosure that she was born in Iran, rather than in Afghanistan. But there have been criticisms – which I simply can’t fathom – from MPs such as Tony Clement and Michelle Rempel, who talked about “serious consequences” if the minister’s birthplace had not been accurately represented on her refugee and citizenship applications.
Do these people have any idea what region we are talking about? Does Ms. Rempel have any understanding of how volatile, porous and border-inconsequential the region was, where even dates of birth, when registered, between Muslim and Christian countries don’t match up? Does she, and those who chime in with her, realize that many Afghans sought refuge in Iran during both the Soviet occupation and the subsequent civil war culminating in the rise of the vicious Taliban regime?
The Afghan city of Herat (where Ms. Monsef’s parents married and where she believed she was born) and the Iranian city of Mashad (where she was actually born) are historically and geographically close. So Afghans would travel back and forth to Iran in times of duress; although they might have not been warmly welcomed, they were at least in a safer environment than in Afghanistan.
As a former Canadian high commissioner to Pakistan, from 1998 to 2001, I believe Ms. Monsef. Her family’s story is similar to the ones that my wife, who was an immigration officer responsible for refugees at the High Commission, heard many times. By the late 1990s, the city of Peshawar, where I had lived as a child, had mutated into a mini-Kabul, with millions of Afghan refugees, including a number of Taliban fellow travellers. People were travelling at great risk by bus, donkey and on foot for hundreds of kilometres from Afghanistan to Pakistan to try to persuade our immigration office to give them a visa while they waited in UN refugee camps.
My first diplomatic posting was to Iran, and I have a lot of sympathy for the decision of Ms. Monsef’s mother to seek refuge there, particularly after her husband was killed. But Iran, under the new regime of Ayatollah Khomeini, was no green pasture. (Our son was born in Tehran in 1976 and when he was trying to get a job at a high-security technology company in Vancouver, years later, he complained that his birthplace was giving him as much trouble as the fact that his parents had also served in Moscow.)
It is understandable that Ms. Monsef’s mother would not have wanted to have Iran given as her daughter’s country of birth.
She gave birth to Maryam there because it was safer, but that would not have given her child any status in Iran; it would not lead to Iranian citizenship, so it did not matter to her mother.
Maybe her mother worried that her family might have had less chance to qualify as asylum seekers, having travelled to Iran earlier, although their journey from Afghanistan to Pakistan and then to Jordan does not make this potential concern very realistic.
Is it Minister Monsef’s fault that her life narrative was not as she originally described it? How can one criticize someone who, in good faith, believed she was born in Afghanistan?
Living in beautiful and peaceful Canada, it is so easy to be oblivious to, or ignorant of, the plight of those who have come from afar. I travelled several times to Afghanistan while it was controlled by the Taliban regime. In 2000, my wife and I drove to a village in the Jaghori district, north of Ghazni, under control of the Taliban. There, we met secretly with six courageous young women and heard their stories of educating other girls from the village and the area – a Grade 10 student teaching a Grade 9, the Grade 9 to Grade 8, and so on. In a way, Ms. Monsef reminds me of them.
Minister Monsef, you hail from a country of brave women. We feel honoured to have you in Canada, with whatever birth certificate you may have.
Ferry de Kerckhove is a Former high commissioner of Canada to Pakistan.