From Afghanistan To Iran To Peterborough: One Woman's Amazing Story Of How A City (& A School) Saved Her Life

Maryam as a baby

Maryam as a baby

[September 22nd, 2016: UPDATE here.]


The most frequently asked question I encounter is, “Why did you come to Peterborough?”

My story goes something like this.

I was eleven years old.

And I came here kicking and screaming. 

Despite the horrible circumstances in my first home in Afghanistan—and the uncertainty of refugee life in my second home in Iran—I thought I had it pretty good there.

My mom was widowed at the age of twenty-three and instead of re-marrying, she decided to spend her life taking care of her three little girls. I never felt the void of a father because my sisters and I were raised in a full house: full of extended family, love and attention.

I had the perfect childhood.

I thought I had it all.


My mom & dadI had no idea that my mother was barely getting by. Despite her brilliance and training as a teacher, she was not allowed to work in either Afghanistan or Iran: the Taliban had this thing against working women and educated girls. Iran continues to have this thing about permitting any Afghan refugee to work, period. To survive, my mother cooked, cleaned, sewed and relied heavily on her brothers’ help—an indignant, unsustainable arrangement.  

So imagine her relief when I started receiving marriage proposals at the age of ten! The idea of one less mouth to feed and one less daughter to worry about was too appealing.

She had to make a decision and she did.

A decision I resented for a long time, but today, I understand it as the biggest sacrifice my mother ever made.

I was told that I would be moving to Canada to start a new life. And I didn’t have a choice.

I was shocked, angry and heartbroken.

After travelling by various modes of transportation through Iran, Pakistan, and Jordan, I found myself in Peterborough, Ontario.

It was May 1st, 1996.

The sun was shining. The grass was green. I came face to face with my very first robin. And despite the pain of separation from my loved ones, I was hopeful. Canada was the land of opportunity, and I owed it to myself, my mother and the rest of the girls back home to make something of myself here.

And if I worked really hard, I could get an education, get a good job and eventually be reunited with the loved ones I had left behind. After all, I had survived a dangerous journey to get here and the rules that held girls back did not apply here. The worst was over!

Boy, was I wrong.


My hopes for a smooth adjustment were shattered—not too long after they had formed.

The realities of new life started to sink in when I started school: I was the strange, foreign girl. I didn’t speak English, so I didn’t have a voice, which basically meant I did not matter. I didn’t smoke, drink, or have a social life outside school. Coming from a segregated school system, I was overwhelmed by the concept of boys and girls in the same classroom.


Sisters: Full of hopeI was teased, taunted and bullied. I didn’t have my support system to help heal the emotional bruises. My uncle and his family were here and they did the very best they could. They were coping with their own integration challenges and there was only so much they could do anyway.

And I didn’t know it at the time, but complicating the whole process were the growing pains of puberty.

Life was horrible.

I had gone from being the active, confident girl who loved life to being a miserable, isolated outcast who spent lunch hours hidden in the bathroom.

I cried myself to sleep every night that first year. I would pray to God to take me back to my family I was helpless in a strange new world, and there was nothing I could do about it.

I may not be the best Muslim out there, but what happened next has turned me into one of the strongest believers out there.

I like to think of it as ‘my miracle’.



My mom and meNo prayer goes unanswered and a bitter, broken me was brought back to life by the kindness of strangers.

In my darkest hour, I witnessed the attentive care of staff and volunteers at the New Canadians Centre. When I had nowhere to go, I found a safe haven and a turning point at the YWCA's Crossroads Shelter. When I thought I had no family here, I was rejuvenated by the love of the Sisters of St. Joseph and found a home with Sister Ruth Hennessey's Casa Maria refugee home.  

People I did not know, who spoke a different language, who believed in a different God, were hanging our curtains, finding us furniture, taking us shopping, encouraging us to explore Peterborough and feel at home.

Just when I thought I had to look, talk and dream like everyone else, I was accepted into the Integrated Arts Program at PCVS. For the first time since coming to Canada, I was encouraged to discover all the things that were unique about me and to nurture those traits. I made friends who actually liked and respected me. I connected with educators who saw something in me and went out of their way to make sure I saw it too.


The Monsef Women with brother in law (photograph by JESS MELNIK) I said it before and I'll say it again: PCVS saved my life.

My family joke that I am married to Peterborough... and they are not too far off.

It may have started out as an arranged marriage of sorts with many ups and downs, but we are in a good place now.

Like many successful marriages out there, ours is going strong because the people around us are helping to make it work—another blessing to celebrate on our sixteenth anniversary in Peteborough, on May 1st (most likely at the Silver Bean).

This kind of love is a very special kind of love. It doesn’t come around twice in a lifetime and I will love and honor Peterborough all the days of my life.

It took a while, but I finally understand why my mother did what she did to bring us girls to Peterborough. She found the courage to leave behind everything that mattered because she wanted her daughters to have the opportunity to fully participate and positively contribute to society.

Check out more of our story in this video segment below, and how my mother brought us here...


This is Maryam Monsef's first piece for We welcome her as a new contributor.

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