National Post (Latest Edition)
‘I’m with the Mujahedin’
CHILDREN OF ‘ THE RESISTANCE’
Today, the conclusion a five-part National Post series about a Canadian family that got deeply involved with an Iranian guerrilla group— and now regrets it. The voice on the speakerphone was faint.
“Hello. I amSomayehMohammady,” the caller said. “I’min Ashraf city, in Iraq.” Somayeh was calling from Camp Ashraf, the headquarters of the guerrilla group she had joined when she was 17.
Standing outside on the sidewalk for better reception, she held a borrowed satellite phone to her ear while 10,000 kilometres away her muffled words were broadcast through a speaker into Hearing Room 50 at the Immigration and Refugee Board office in downtown Toronto.
“Somayeh, are you still living in Camp Ashraf, in the Mujahedin camp?” her lawyer, Pamila Bhardwaj, asked, using the term for aMuslim soldier of God.
“Yes,” she replied. “Yes, I am there.”
A former student at Etobicoke Collegiate Institute, Somayeh was in Grade 10 when she was recruited into the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a resistance group fighting to overthrown Iran’s hardline regime.
It was the regime that came to power in Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution. Her younger brother, Mohammad, joined her at the camp at age 16.
Although their parents were MEK supporters and initially backed their decision to go to Iraq, as the years went by they became increasingly desperate to get the children home. In 2004, they succeeded in bringing Mohammad back to Canada after five years with the guerrillas, but Somayeh was still there.
They wrote letters, travelled to Iraq and met diplomats and guerrilla commanders. In the end, however, it was the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada that would decide Somayeh’s fate.
The 25-year-old’s future hung in the balance on May 9, 2006, as she testified by telephone at the hearing that would determine whether she would be allowed to return to Canada or whether she would have to remain at a rebel camp in the world’s deadliest war zone.
The problem was that Somayeh was only a permanent resident of Canada when she left Toronto to join the resistance in 1998. She had been away with the rebels when the rest of her family became citizens. By 2006, she had been away so long that she had lost her Canadian immigration status. She was also a self-admitted member of the MEK, an outlawed terrorist organization under federal law, and therefore inadmissible to Canada.
Early in 2004, she sent a letter to the Canadian embassy in Jordan asking for help getting out of Ashraf. On May 31 of that year, an immigration official travelled to Camp Ashraf to interview her.
In the notes she took that day, the officer observed that the meeting was monitored by Behzad Saffari, a “legal advisor” to the MEK who “refused to leave the interview and regularly interfered, saying he was translating.”
“If it is determined that you have the right to return to Canada, do you wish to do so?” the Canadian official asked Somayeh.
“Because I was an immigrant in Canada, I am willing to go back to Canada to join my family,” she replied, according to a government report on the meeting obtained by the National Post.
Somayeh told the officer how she had immigrated to Canada from Iran with her parents in 1994.
“When did you leave Canada,” the official asked. “1998.” “Have you been back to Canada since?” “Never.” As the immigration official wrote in her subsequent report, under Canadian law, landed immigrants automatically lose their status if they have been abroad for more than 730 days during the previous five years.
Themath was not in Somayeh’s favour. She had not spent a single day in Canada in almost a decade. As the Canadian embassy in Amman wrote in its letter to Somayeh, that meant she was not entitled to return to Canada. Neither did the embassy find there were sufficient humanitarian or compassionate grounds to let her back in.
The Mohammady family did not give up. They hired a lawyer, Ms. Bhardwaj, who filed an appeal. To support the case, Somayeh’s father, Mustafa, a Canadian citizen, wrote a two-page affidavit that portrayed his daughter as a Patty Hearstlike victim.
“My daughter left Canada in 1998 for Iraq by herself on vacation. She was 16 years old at the time [she was actually 17],” Mustafa wrote. “My daughter informs me, and I verily believe, that after her arrival in Iraq, she was detained by the Mujahedin and has been held against her will since then.”
At the hearing, Somayeh called in on a satellite telephone she borrowed from a U.S. soldier who was part of the Military Police unit guarding the camp. She said she was able to speak freely.
Her lawyer asked whether she had left the MEK camp and moved to the “defectors’ camp,” a nearby compound that American troops had set up for those wishing to quit the guerrillas. But she said she was still living with the MEK.
“I’m with the Mujahedin,” she said in Farsi. Why hadn’t she gone to theU.S. camp? “I don’t want to go there.” Why? “I’m a Mujahedin myself and I want to be here.”
Her lawyer asked if she wanted to return to Canada. “No, I don’t.” Why not? “I would like to be here.” Why? “Because I’m Mujahedin myself and I want to be here.”
At that, the lawyer turned to the immigration judge and said she was not comfortable proceeding, arguing that Somayeh was afraid to speak truthfully since she was still living with the MEK.
The lawyer argued that Somayeh had not given up her landed immigrant status voluntarily. When she left Canada, she was a minor and never intended to stay in Iraq for so long, Ms. Bhardwaj said. The MEK had, for all intents and purposes, kidnapped her.
In her cross-examination, the immigration official asked Somayeh why she left Canada.
“I wanted replied. Did your parents know this? “Yes.” And they approved? “Yes, they approved.” Who paid for you to travel to Iraq? “My parents,” she said, adding, “The money I have for telephone is running out.”
Mustafa testified by speakerphone from Amman. He had arrived in Jordan in April with his wife, Robabe. They hoped to get into Iraq and move Somayeh to the American camp until her immigration status was sorted out.
“I swear as a father to tell the truth,” he pleaded. “My daughter is a hostage and she is very frightened of these people, and whatever she might have said today is what they told her to say.”
But the immigration official dismissed the family’s portrayal of Somayeh as a girl who went on a student exchange program and got kidnapped by rebels.
“It’s simply not plausible,” the official said. “There’s something else going on here. This is the type of organization you chose for your daughter for a student exchange? He [Mustafa] was aware his daughter was going to join theMujahedin. That is the only plausible explanation.”
After two months in Jordan and Turkey, trying to reach his daughter in Iraq, Mustafa was running out of money and making little headway. He returned to Toronto on June 21, 2006. The construction contractor estimates the six trips he has made to the region have cost him $60,000.
Disarmed and confined to its base in Iraq, the MEK is all but finished as a fighting force. Its guerrillas pass the time studying and running their base.
she Camp Ashraf is now no more than a holding station for rebels like Somayeh who, whether out of fear or commitment, won’t abandon the MEK and have nowhere else to go.
A copy of the refugee board’s decision on Somayeh’s case was delivered to her lawyer last Thursday and released publicly on Monday. The judge, James Waters, ruled that Somayeh had “joined the MEK voluntarily with her parents’ consent.”
He noted that the MEK was considered a terrorist group under Canada’s Anti-terrorism Act and that Somayeh “was clear that she was a long-time committed member of the MEK and wished to remain with her Mujahedin colleagues at Camp Ashraf in Iraq rather than return to Canada.” Somayeh’s appeal was dismissed. Unless the decision is appealed and overturned, her life in Canada is finished, squandered by zeal for a cause half a world away.
Mustafa broke down when he heard the news. His wife cries every day. They are nervous all the time and can’t sleep. They worry that the MEK will kill Somayeh and claim it as a suicide.
The parents feel helpless. And they feel guilty as well because they were the ones who introduced her to the MEK when she was an impressionable adolescent.
“I understand,” Mustafa said, “that we made a mistake.”