January 15, 2016 5:22 pm
Updated: January 21, 2016 6:47 pm

Maryam Monsef reflects on childhood as Afghan refugee – and her rise to Canadian minister

WATCH: Senate reform is part of the portfolio of Maryam Monsef, the Minister of Democratic Institutions in Justin Trudeau's cabinet. Monsef became a Canadian after her family fled a tyrannical regime in Afghanistan. Laura Stone has the story.

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Global News correspondents are sitting down with the new cabinet ministers who will shape policy in this country, to find out where they came from and where they want to take this country. Global National will air their stories in a new series called The Ministers.

OTTAWA – Maryam Monsef was 11 when she fled from the Taliban with her mother and two sisters.

“Violence is one of the reasons we ended up in Canada,” she says.

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Monsef and her sisters Mina and Mehrangiz left behind a childhood in Afghanistan marked by tragedy and danger.

“My dad was killed, caught in a crossfire. My uncle was taken from his dormitory one night for speaking up against what was happening politically, never to be seen or heard from again.”

In 1996, the family arrived as refugees in Peterborough, Ont.

It was the end of one uncertain journey – and the beginning of another.

“We didn’t understand the culture, we didn’t speak the language, everything from food to weather to the way that the school system worked, to the way people dressed, all of these things took us by surprise to put it mildly,” Monsef says.

But Monsef’s mother, Soriya Basir, wanted a better life for her daughters, and the small Ontario city was there to help, with everything from buying the family groceries to hanging curtains, to tutoring the girls in English.

“I ended up in one of the kindest, most generous communities in Canada,” Monsef says.

It’s a community Monsef dedicated herself to serving, first as a local organizer and volunteer, and later, as a politician.

Last year, she ran for Peterborough mayor and came in second, before joining the Liberals and winning former Conservative Dean Del Mastro’s Peterborough-Kawartha seat in the October federal election.

Monsef is now the country’s first Afghan-Canadian MP. At 30, she is also the youngest member of Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s cabinet – appointed, no less, as Minister of Democratic Institutions.

Watch: Monsef takes on Minister of Democratic Institutions role

It’s a symbolic post for a woman who didn’t know democracy until she came here.

“I have an appreciation for these democratic institutions that we have in place, that allow us to transition from one government to another, without too much disruption or chaos,” says Monsef.

The job isn’t just symbolic, however – it’s also significant.

Monsef’s first task is to reform the scandal-plagued upper chamber.

Her government has already announced sweeping changes to the way senators will be appointed, including the creation of a new independent Senate appointment process.

But both British Columbia and Saskatchewan’s premiers have already come out against the idea.

“I certainly respect those provinces who are not able to, or who don’t wish to be part of this change we’ve introduced,” Monsef says.

Also on the minister’s to do list: changing our voting system.

READ MORE: Will Trudeau’s electoral reform make it ‘virtually impossible’ for Liberals to lose power?

But she won’t commit to a referendum on the issue before consultations with Canadians are complete.

“I believe it’s premature to commit to an outcome and I certainly don’t want to pre-judge that outcome in any way,” she says.

Today, Monsef sees her own situation mirrored in the thousands of Syrian refugees now arriving in Canada.

“We continue to be welcoming refugees from other parts of the world, and I see that same kindness of strangers being shared with our new Syrian neighbours, and it’s wonderful to see that this is who we are as Canadians, this is what we do well,” she says.

“I have moments where I also get a little sentimental about – in 20 years from now, the people who are here, they’re not going to forget the kindness of strangers.”

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