"We are part of the Canadian people" now, frostbitten refugee on road to recovery says

Razak Iyal, 35, and Seidu Mohammed, 24, walked into Manitoba from North Dakota on Christmas Eve

CBC News, Feb 02, 2017; Updated: Feb 09, 2017

We are part of the Canadian people Razak Iyal Seidu Mohammed

After all his fingers were removed because of severe frostbite, a Ghanaian refugee who walked into Canada seeking asylum on Christmas Eve says he's healing well though the pain still bothers him.

"It's going to be like that till it gets healed, so I'm used to it," said Seidu Mohammed, 24. "I think everything's going to be OK."

Doctors could have used some of the Ghanaian refugee's toes to replace his fingers, but he said no. He wanted to be able to play soccer.

In December, Mohammed crossed the border into Manitoba from North Dakota on foot and waited several hours on the highway in the cold before a driver picked him up.

He made the journey with another Ghanaian refugee, Razak Iyal, 35. The pair had never met before their paths crossed on the way to Canada.

Iyal was also badly frostbitten. All his fingers were amputated except for his thumbs, but he said it was worth it for the chance to live in Canada.

"The president of the Ghana community [in Winnipeg], she has been coming every day, every day.… She brings us food, everything we need," Iyal said.

"She's been helping us, and most of the Canadian people, too … when they see us they have been good to us. Now I think we are part of the Canadian people."

On March 27, Iyal will have his hearing to determine whether he can stay in Canada. Mohammed will have his hearing on March 23. Both refugees will be represented by Winnipeg immigration and refugee lawyer Bashir Khan.

In the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump's controversial 120-day ban on refugees, Iyal said he thinks more people will seek asylum in Canada.

"For now, I think, because of what's going on in the States now, I think more people will decide that 'Let's come to Canada and try our best,'" he said. "Because most of the people are in the situation that when they go back to their home country, some of them [are] going to suffer of torture, some of them are going to go to prison for all of their lives, some of them are thinking they are going to [be] killed.

"Most people like us, we don't want to go back because of what is going on there."

Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council officials said they opened 10 new files for refugee claimants on Monday. Eight of them had walked over the border.

Council workers have met with more than 80 applicants wanting to open refugee files in the last three months. Typically, the council receives 50 to 60 in an entire year.

If they're allowed to stay, Iyal and Mohammed hope to find a place to live together.

"We are strong now. We are young and we are strong," said Mohammed. "We are going to make it through life."

Related Stories:

  • Ghanaian community comes together to support frostbitten refugee claimants
  • More asylum seekers coming, refugee says
  • 'We saw what happened in the airports': Asylum seekers from U.S. surge into Manitoba
  • Families separated, students stranded: The impact of Trump's immigration ban
  • Trump's refugee ban throws lives into uncertainty
  • 'They almost froze to death': Refugees frostbitten after walking to Manitoba border

Asylum seekers fleeing US for Canada brave snow, extreme cold

AFP, February 11, 2017

[Photo: Farhan Ahmed, a 36-year-old refugee claimant, pictured in a Winnipeg hotel on February 9, 2017 after arriving with a group of other migrants over the US-Canada border to seek asylum in Canada]

Emerson (Canada) (AFP) - Farhan Ahmed hoped to find refuge in the United States after fleeing death threats in Somalia, but fear over a US crackdown on immigration sent him on another perilous journey -- to Canada.

The 36-year-old was among nearly two dozen asylum seekers who braved bone-chilling cold on a February weekend to walk across the border, trudging through snow-covered prairies in the dead of night to make a claim in this country.

It was a record number of arrivals for a single weekend in the small border town of Emerson, and Canadian officials said Thursday they are bracing for more.

US President Donald Trump's controversial ban on refugees and nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations has prompted many who had hoped for a new life in the US to flee north.

While the ban is currently on hold due to two successive defeats in federal court, Trump has warned he is weighing a new immigration order.

Among the first wave of immigrants to Canada in the wake of Trump's measure was a two-year-old boy who reportedly begged his mother to let him to die in the snow because he could walk no further.

Two others lost their fingers to frostbite in -20 degrees Celsius (-4 Fahrenheit) temperatures when they made the same trip in December.

Wayne Pfiel works at the Emerson hotel steps from the boundary. Asylum seekers, he said, often stop here for a moment of respite after walking up to 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) from the United States, coming in to ask if they have reached Canada.

Others have called police for help, and are taken to the closest border outpost, where they can file an asylum claim.

"They usually call us if they're cold or lost, and we find them on the side of the highway," said RCMP Corporal Paul Manaigre.

- Risky desperation -

An agreement with the US prevents asylum seekers from lodging claims in Canada if they first landed stateside, but it only applies to arrivals at border checkpoints, airports and train stations.

Rita Chahal, executive director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, described a "big surge coming across the border."

According to Canada's Border Services Agency, numbers have roughly doubled in each of the last four years to 321 cases in fiscal 2015-2016. Since April, there have been 403 cases.

People often come from Djibouti, Ghana, Nigeria and Somalia, said Chahal, whose agency works out of a building designed by a top Canadian architect who was once himself a refugee.

The numbers are high, but the risky routes asylum seekers take are also alarming.

"They're crossing through farmers' fields. Many of them are getting lost," Chahal said.

The recent arrivals, she said, tell a common story: "'We're afraid of what's happening in the United States, we're not sure what's going to happen if I get sent back to my country.'"

Samatar Adam, 30, from Djibouti, arrived last month. Asked why he did not file a refugee claim in the US, he replied: "Donald Trump."

He left soon after the inauguration.

"It saddens me to see refugees flee not only their country but also a safe, democratic country like the United States," said the Immigration Partnership Winnipeg's Hani Al-Ubeady, himself an Iraqi refugee who now helps resettle others.

"They have to take another risky journey to make it to another safe place -- Canada."

- 'Walk north' -

Last weekend, Brenda Piett, an Emerson volunteer emergency coordinator who also publishes the local newspaper, received a call from border agents asking for help with the overflow of asylum seekers.

Piett said she arranged to feed and house the cold, exhausted group members -- many wearing wet socks -- overnight at the Emerson curling rink.

The next day, they took a taxi an hour north to Winnipeg, where aid agencies helped them find shelter and legal counsel.

Ahmed of Somalia said it was a much warmer welcome than the one he received in Texas in 2014.

In the lobby of a gloomy downtown hotel where he now shares a small room with three others, he described being handcuffed and detained until his US asylum bid was heard.

New arrivals received blankets, food and housing while their cases are ongoing, according to Ahmed. The next day, he expected to be given a date for his hearing.

Ahmed told the Americans he had witnessed his father being slaughtered by a rival tribe in his hometown, and as the oldest son, he feared he would be next.

He left behind his wife and three children -- the youngest born only months earlier -- and traveled through nine countries before reaching the US.

A US panel rejected his claim, but he was released under supervision and allowed to work as a truck driver until his deportation could be arranged.

After Trump announced his ban, which includes Somali nationals, Ahmed said he feared imminent deportation.

"I decided to try my luck in Canada to ask for protection, because if I were deported to Somalia I would surely be killed," he said.

Ahmed took a bus to Minneapolis, where he met a man who dropped him off at the border with instructions to "walk north."

Ahmed said he had seen snow in the United States, "but not like this."

"That night it was very, very cold," he recalled. "My hands were frozen. I couldn't feel my feet."

'Informal' network helping refuge seekers get to Manitoba, U.S. officials say

Would-be refugee claimants using three main routes to cross the border by foot

By Karen Pauls, CBC News, Feb 08, 2017

The rising number of refuge-seekers crossing the U.S. border into Manitoba has not escaped the notice of the Department of Homeland Security.

Officials in the U.S. say that "informal" networks of family members and friends, rather than criminal profiteers, are helping refugee claimants get to the border.

"What we've seen hasn't fit the profile of hardened criminals or organized crime types," says Eric Kuhn, a U.S. border patrol officer in Pembina, N.D.

"It's more informal, almost charity-based, although some of them are charging a fair amount of money to get here … so there's some profit motive there."

Marc Prokosch, an immigration lawyer in Bloomington, Minn., said he has heard about a network of drivers that take refuge seekers from Minneapolis to the border.

He characterized it more as an underground railroad than a human smuggling route. Prokosch said several of his clients have disappeared, only to contact him weeks later from inside Canada.

Kuhn said it's not illegal to drive someone to the border, but it can be "exploitative."

Getting to the border

People get to the border in a variety of ways. For example, some take a bus into Grand Forks, N.D., and hire a cab.

One taxi driver told CBC News he gets requests "all the time" — often right at the Grand Forks bus depot — and has made several trips himself.

He charges up to $200 US per person for the approximately one-hour ride.

"It's like an airplane seat," he explained.

Others are driven in private vehicles from Minneapolis, which is about seven hours away.

Once they get to the border, Kuhn said refuge seekers use one of three main routes to cross over by foot.

Some use railroad tracks, while others hide in the treeline until they can get across, he said.

"They try to use the cover of darkness, they don't like to be seen," said Kuhn. "They want to make their entry before anyone detects them."

Ease of access

Kuhn said the most popular route is a decommissioned border crossing at Noyes, Minn., and Emerson, Man., where people can use a state highway to drive right up to the barricade between the two countries, get out of the vehicle and walk over.

"This is one of the areas where they've found for it to be the best spot for them to cross," said Kuhn, while giving CBC a tour of the area recently.

Many refuge-seekers looking to come into Canada from the U.S. have crossed the border from North Dakota or Minnesota into Manitoba. (CBC)

"I think it's ease of access. We're on a maintained state highway, you're not dealing with gravel roads and township and prairie trails, you're still in town, you're not in the hinterlands, in the wilds and swamps."

While approaching that area is very simple, refuge seekers run a high risk there of being intercepted by U.S. border patrol officers, he said.

To the east, some asylum seekers cross on foot near a set of TransCanada natural gas pipeline pumping stations on either side of the border.

The stretch of the border west between Noyes and Neche, N.D., involves a much longer trek over snowy farmers' fields.

People are told by their drivers and others who have made the journey to walk towards a large cell phone tower and the windmill lights near Halbstadt, Man.

They're less likely to be discovered by border officers, but Kuhn said they risk frostbite or worse if they can't get a cell signal to call 911 or are unable to flag down help quickly once they're on the Canadian side.

That was the case of two Ghanaian men who lost fingers and toes to frostbite after crossing on Christmas Eve.

"The great danger you get into in our area of operations … is the less likely you are to have a cell signal," Kuhn said. "When you do get into trouble and try to call 911, it may not go anywhere.

"We'll move heaven and earth to save people regardless of their legal status ... but we can't help you if we don't know you're there."

'Don't do it, don't do it'

Since last spring, the Canada Border Services Agency says more than 400 people have snuck into the country along this stretch, compared to 68 in 2013.

Refugee claimants are choosing to walk across the border instead of presenting themselves at ports of entry because the Safe Third Country Agreement between Canada and the U.S. means claimants must file for refugee status in the first safe country in which they arrive.

Despite calls to suspend or withdraw from the Safe Third Country Agreement, Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen has said repeatedly that U.S. President Donald Trump's executive order on immigrants and refugees does not affect the agreement, which will remain in place.

While political uncertainty in the U.S. is creating fear among many of his clients, Prokosch cautions them against making the crossing, particularly in light of stories of refuge seekers nearly freezing to death in the process.

"I'm saying, don't do it, don't do it. Talk to your lawyer first. This is dangerous stuff. You've made it out of a dangerous situation, don't put yourself back into another dangerous situation."

Prokosch said that while the U.S. political situation is tense, "there's always something we can try to keep someone in the United States."


– 'This is right off the scale': Border town seeks help after spike in refugees

– 'We are part of the Canadian people' now, frostbitten refugee on road to recovery says

Many Somalis in Minnesota 'willing to take the risk' to sneak into Canada

'They left their country and they’re still on the run,' says Somali community leader in Minneapolis

By Karen Pauls, CBC News, Feb 10, 2017

Omar Jamal is dealing with a crisis.

Jamal is the executive director of the Somali Community of Minnesota, and for months now, he has seen people whose U.S. asylum claims have been rejected end up in Minneapolis, home to one of the largest Somali communities in the country.

From there, they make arrangements to sneak into Canada, where they can file refugee claims.

Jamal has become used to this, but today he is fielding non-stop calls about a car full of refuge seekers and their driver who appear to have gone missing after leaving Minneapolis.

The plan was to drive the seven hours north to the Canadian border and cross the border on foot.

But they're nowhere to be found.

"I'm getting calls from family members and I'm meeting relatives and as we speak right now, we are trying to figure out what happened to them and where are they? Are they still alive?" says Jamal.

Jamal's current situation speaks to the heightened desire for people to sneak into Canada, but also the potential perils.

As a community leader, Jamal says he's been "overwhelmed" with calls and meetings about fellow Somalis aiming to cross over the Canadian border illegally.

But he consistently cautions them that "there's a risk involved."

Minnesota's Somali community

Somalis in Minneapolis like to congregate in places such as Karmel Square and Suuqq, a Somali mall where they can eat goat meat and drink sweet tea — and where many have been gathering to negotiate a ride to the Canadian border.

Mohamud Noor, executive director of the Confederation of Somali Communities in Minnesota, says Somalis have the highest rate of asylum rejections and deportation orders in the U.S.

As a result, he says they're undaunted by the prospect of a potentially perilous journey to Canada.

They've already come so far from Africa, "so going through the last leg of their challenge isn't seen as too bad. They're willing to take the risk."

Some would-be refugee claimants organize a taxi ride all the way from Minneapolis to Manitoba, while others take a bus from Minneapolis to Grand Forks, N.D. and from there hire a cab to drive them the last 130 or so kilometres to the border.

There is clearly demand for rides north. And there are also people with free time, a vehicle and a willingness to make the drive, especially if they can make some money doing it.

Jamal is fully aware that refuge seekers are "using any means available to them to get from point A to point B to make it to the border and then walk on foot in this cold, blizzard winter.

"It's a very sad story and it's happening throughout different locations, different [parts of the] border," he says, while nervously puffing on a cigar at a smoke lounge.

As the day wears on, news starts to trickle in about what happened to the missing car — especially once the driver himself reappears in Minneapolis.

We found him in a tiny Somali café, where he took us down to the basement to tell his tale. We're calling him Ahmed, concealing his identity because he's shaken by what happened.

He has only agreed to tell his story as a warning to others.

"I was helping as a friend," he assures us.

"I didn't charge any money. I know one guy and he asked me to help them so I say, 'Yes, I will help you,'" he says.

"So we drive in North Dakota and it's getting bad, the road condition is really bad, you can't see nothing, it's all freezing and [the passengers] say, 'Just drive… to the border,' and I'm like, 'Come on. If I drop you at the border, you gonna die.'

"They say, 'No, we know what we're doing. We do the research. We know the corner, here, there, there.' So finally they say just drop me there."

Ahmed ended up leaving them at a gas station in Pembina, N.D., which is about eight kilometres from Manitoba. After doing so, Ahmed says he drove towards to the border, just to get a lay of the land.

But soon, he found himself at the border crossing at Emerson, Man., talking to a Canadian Border Services Agency officer.

A run-in with CBSA

The CBSA officer asked Ahmed why there was so much food and juice in his car, and then inquired whether he had just dropped off some people who were planning to walk across.

Ahmed wasn't sure what to say. The CBSA ended up detaining him.

He says the Canadian border officers were "really, really nice" and made it clear that because he's a U.S. citizen, they didn't want anything from him.

[Photo: This man, who we're calling Ahmed to protect his identity, told CBC News about driving Somalis from Minnesota to the Canadian border so they could sneak into Canada.]

But the reason he got in trouble is because the officers were worried about the survival of the refuge seekers.

Ahmed says one of them told him, "'It's negative twenty-something and I don't think they can survive. You are criminal, guilty guy. You and those guys who leave them here are killing innocent people because you just drop innocent people [off] and they're deep-freezing.'

"And I say, 'That's what they wanted, because they want to come to Canada. They see there's no life in America no more because of Trump.'"

Ahmed says he was kept in a holding room for 12 to 15 hours.

"I feel guilty and I'm freaking out. I'm not even worried about myself. In my mind, I'm worried about these people. If I hire a lawyer, if I go to court, I may have a chance, but if somebody dies by deep-freezing, they don't have a chance," Ahmed says.

"I decided to tell the truth that hey, I dropped people [off]. I don't know if [the CBSA went to] go get them."

Ahmed has advice for anyone contemplating a run for the border.

"Don't do it. Even if you want to do it, please do it in the summertime, not the winter, because summertime at least you can survive. If you get thirsty, you can deal with it," he says. "But freezing? We don't even have snow in Africa."

'They're really worried'

Twenty-four hours later, there's relief in Jamal's voice. All of the missing refuge seekers have been accounted for.

They're making their way back to Minneapolis.

As a result of their attempted crossing, they've been flagged as a flight risk by U.S. immigration authorities.

"They're really worried, they're scared," says Jamal.

"The thing is, when they came [to the U.S.], they psychologically believed that they left everything behind, the bad things. But actually the place they've got here now doesn't look much different than the place they came from.

"It's a continuation of crisis and suffering and not being settled… That saga is still ongoing," he says. "They left their country and they're still on the run."

Before too long, Jamal has moved on to the next phone call, the next request for help.

He knows this flood of asylum seekers won't stop any time soon, and he has a message for his neighbours to the north.

"Canadians are historically known as a society to be very hospitable and welcoming, and I think they should open up more now than ever. I really, in a sense of urgency, urge the Canadian government to take bold steps to address this issue," he says.

"The time is now, the need is there."


  • 'Everything was hurting so bad': How one Muslim man snuck across the U.S. border into Canada
  • 'I want to die,' 2-year-old refugee said during hours-long walk to Manitoba from U.S.

'We're willing to step up,' says Emerson reeve after emergency meeting

RCMP promise to allocate more resources near Manitoba border town after influx of refugees

CBC News, Feb 09, 2017

The reeve of Emerson, Man., says an emergency meeting Thursday with members of the Canada Border Services Agency and Mounties has relieved concerns he had after a recent surge of refugees into the border town.

"Now we know the protocol if we get an influx of people," said Greg Janzen. "The governments have been very supportive in this whole issue."

According to the Canada Border Services Agency, 403 people entered Canada near the town in nine months last year, up from 340 in the 2015-16 fiscal year and 68 in 2013-14.

Last weekend, 22 people made the journey — 19 on Saturday and three on Sunday — according to the RCMP.

There was confusion in the community of 671 people about the protocol when a large group of refugees jumps the border, he said. Last weekend Emerson utilized emergency measures and opened its community hall to house the unexpected surge of newcomers.

"We didn't know where we stood as a municipality," said Janzen. "Was there a safety risk for us?"

Emerson member of the legislature Cliff Graydon echoed the concerns and said constituents have also reached out to him with safety worries.

"They're very, very concerned about the refugees [INVADERS] coming at this time of year and walking across the field when it's –35 with the wind chill, and are they dressed properly and so on and so forth," he said.

A pair of Ghanaian refugees who made the journey on foot in December lost most of their fingers to frostbite.

"They don't want to find anybody froze to death out there," Graydon said. "That's the big concern to the local people."

Janzen said his concerns were allayed when RCMP told him they screen refugee claimants.

"We never talked risk factor to our people, but now we understand how the process is being done so that makes it more reassuring," Janzen said.

If a large group of refugees cross the border again, the CBSA will rent Emerson's community hall to house them, he added.

"If we're needed we're willing [to] step up.… We're not turning them away," said Janzen.

Leaving U.S. not criminal: RCMP

RCMP say they are adding resources along the border near Emerson, but it's not the responsibility of the police to stop border jumpers.

"People leaving the United States is not a criminal act," said RCMP media relations officer Tara Seel.

[Photo: Some refugees [INVADERS] walk to this disused border crossing between Manitoba and North Dakota.
Some refugees walk to this disused border crossing between Manitoba and North Dakota.]

It is, however, the RCMP's responsibility to screen individuals caught after they have crossed the border, she said.

Police rely on patrols, 911 reports and surveillance technology to catch border jumpers, including asylum seekers, she said. Those who claim refugee status are taken to the Canada Border Services Agency for further processing.

"We have no concerns whatsoever," said Seel. "We are well-prepared to handle any threats at the border."

Rita Chahal, executive director of the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, also met with Emerson officials along with members of the CBSA and RCMP Thursday. The council runs Welcome Place, a home for refugees in Winnipeg.

She brought the town 10 care packages containing bedding and toiletries for refugees who may enter the town in the future.

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