Editorial: the refugee narrative under western scrutiny

Hey, where are you from?

I’m Canadian.

Yeah, but, where are you really from?


Okay but… where are your parents from?

I came across a copy of The Globe and Mail at a cafe on Thursday left open on a page of MP Maryam Monsef’s somber face. This now viral article, written by Robert Fife on the Democratic Minister’s heritage, is a perfect example of racism and sexism in media and politics. Analyzing any refugee, politician or not, through this lens is extremely problematic. Shortly after the 2015 Federal Elections, on October 22nd, a CBC Radio interview on The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti titled “Meet Maryam Monsef, Canada’s first Afghan-born MP” aired. Instead of exploring her recent success, the media fixated on her family’s “success story” of arriving as refugees in Canada. The fact that Monsef is an Afghani refugee was highlighted in every announcement; here lies the first fault in The Globe and Mail article.

The piece starts off, “[d]emocratic Reform Minister Maryam Monsef, whom the Liberals have championed as this country’s first Afghan-born MP…” as though this was something that the very media reporting this story did not choose to dwell on. As the identity of this young MP took shape on national and international news, Monsef’s refugee status became a tool the media sensationalized and capitalized on. The recent emphasis on her refugee narrative is indicative of the xenophobic nature in which Muslims are portrayed.

During CTV’s question period in 2016, the author quotes himself when asking Monsef about her origins. Monsef did not construct this identity for herself. Rather, a consortium of big media sensationalists vying to solidify this identity for her are the ones who have written it for her. Monsef has never used her refugee status to garner voter sympathy, or to get a leg up in any race. During her mayoral race in Peterborough, Monsef often spoke about how she empathized with issues of poverty and housing due to her own experiences growing up in Peterborough, Ontario. She always left it at a vague recollection of her own struggles with being a first generation Canadian.

The allegations being thrown Monsef’s way depict how deeply complex the refugee story is. The reader should always be wary of the pen that writes it. “Where you are from,” is a nuanced dialogue amongst  Canadians, especially if one is a Canadian with a history based in immigration. The Globe and Mail’s piece reads as sensationalist, as it fits neatly into the far-right ethos of apprehension from the global refugee crisis while actively refusing to take part in any solution to the displacement of refugees.

The article places fault on Monsef for toting a false identity, one it claims Obama highlighted when addressing her in Ottawa. This is incorrect, as what President Obama said when referring to Monsef is: “The girl who fled Afghanistan by donkey and camel and jet plane.” The President of the United States simply mentions her fleeing Afghanistan, not her Afghani roots.

The irony is Obama and Monsef now share an experience of bigots interrogating them regarding their heritage, and othering them in the public sphere of politics.

The dehumanizing lens of the article paints her as a liar, and causes Monsef to question her mother as to why she was never honest with her about being born in Iran. The fact that this conversation had to stir up painful memories of what her family had to go through, that this is what a hard working Cabinet Minister has been reduced to, stirred a deep disgust in me. Then again, Monsef’s racial otherness and Middle Eastern appearance is what the western media has been trying to reduce her to all along.

It isn’t unusual for a woman in politics to be attacked in multiple facets of her character. This article has brought out extremes of sexism and anti-immigrant sentiments among the dregs of the far right, with Dean “go to jail already” Del Mastro claiming he knew this about Monsef’s family all along, to others in Peterborough often attacking Monsef for supporting the violence perpetrated in the name of Sharia Law.

These men certainly aren’t afraid to carry their egos like a trophy and celebrate their victory, boasting of The Globe and Mail piece as some grand accomplishment. The truth being unveiled here is that it isn’t about Monsef’s birthplace being Iran or Afghanistan, but that in the eyes of racist white men who are celebrating this dramatic unveiling, women like Maryam Monsef are not, and will never be, truly Canadian. These people do not have the complex history refugees have, and celebrate a heritage of belonging here, of their history  never being questioned because of their white-presenting identities.

Despite the shift in dialogue surrounding Monsef, it has not changed her character. The technicality of her not being born in Afghanistan does not erase her efforts or her connection to the community. Does it make the Red Pashmina campaign any less of a success? Monsef’s win in the federal race, and Afghans across the world proudly cheering her on in support can never be taken away. Her successes cannot be rejected and simply swept under the rug due to her being born 370 km away from Herat.

Though The Globe and Mail writes about Monsef and her failed attempt at the mayoral race in an obvious slant, it has brought the community who supported her closer together in her defence. The Peterborough community has taken to social media to react to Fife’s piece for what it is: an attack on the refugee narrative. The essence of being from a war torn nation is the chaos and terror that accompanies one’s story, one we are starting to learn about in the wake of slaughter in the Syrian crisis. Entire cities are being droned by North America, people are trying to escape what the West is doing to them, and at the end of the day, are expected to answer to those very North Americans the grating question, “where are you really from?”

This critical response to The Globe and Mail article aims to reach Trent students who are interested in unpacking issues of racism and gender equality issues, who are passionate writers, to apply to Arthur Newspaper. As an alternative print publication, this space exists to counter mainstream media, and we encourage those of immigrant and refugee heritage to write for us and to include your stories and perspectives in a newspaper that celebrates diversity.

It is also an attempt to reach out to Minister Monsef, who is no doubt continuing to work tirelessly, as she always has. To you, Maryam, I wanted to say that the one thing about your mother’s story that brought tears to my eyes, was reading about the tumultuous journey of her survival. To know that your family travelled to Pakistan, my birthplace, in the journey of coming here to a city we both share, makes me feel as though your story and stories of refugees all over the world have been touched. We are global citizens, displaced, othered because we are visibly Middle Eastern. Regardless of how the media tries to construct that identity, you are, above all, a powerful woman in the public eye. A political figure on the President of the United States’ radar, and without a doubt, have all the makings for a future Prime Minister of Canada.