‘I’m with the Mu­ja­hedin’

CHIL­DREN OF ‘ THE RE­SIS­TANCE’

National Post (Latest Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - BY STE­WART BELL in Toronto

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.

to

join

Mu­ja­hedin,”

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.”

MustafaMo­ham­mady vis­its his daugh­ter, So­mayeh, at the­Mu­ja­hedin-e Khalq camp in Iraq. He es­ti­mates he has spent $60,000 on trips to the re­gion to get her out.

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