Hussein Ahmed and Mohamed Hossain moved as quickly as they could through the waist-deep snow. They had never seen snow in their home country, let alone walked miles in it. They were fleeing the United States for Canada, terrified but determined to get to safety.
The two men were part of a group of five Somalis who crossed illegally through Mexico into the United States, begging for asylum there. Now they find themselves crossing a border to beg for asylum all over again. The men began having sleepless nights because of US President Donald Trump’s campaign rhetoric. Then he signed an executive order temporarily barring refugees, and all travelers from Somalia.
That was the final sign. They hatched a plan to leave. They each paid a man $300 to take them toward Grand Forks, North Dakota. He drove them to as close as possible to the border about 8 p.m. on Friday might, the men say. They were to steer clear of the bright lights of the US border in the distance, where customs agents might turn them back or send them to jail. He told them where to walk across the land where North Dakota and Minnesota meet Manitoba.
But what was meant to be a 30-minute journey stretched into hours. “We traveled the whole day and … actually we lost the direction,” Hossain, 28, says. At one point, the men thought they might die trying to save themselves.
They had been through so much before they reached America. Ahmed says he fled death threats from Al-Shabaab. Hossain says he fled discrimination as an ethnic minority in his country, after seeing his family members threatened or killed. Ahmed left behind young children when he fled; Hossain’s mother is still in Somalia, and tried to dissuade him from making the dangerous border crossing.
Two other refugees, Razak Ioyal and Seidu Mohammed, know the scars the trek to Canada can leave — both temporary and long-term.Their hands were so frozen it sounded like when glasses are clinked together. “The doctors had to cut all my fingers,” Mohammed says. They took skin from his thigh to help repair the skin burned by frostbite.
When the Canadian border lights were behind them, they called 911, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers came, and the men requested asylum.
Rita Chahal, executive director of Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, has been working to help them at their moment of desperation. Workers at the “Welcome Place,” where her group operates, shuttle back and forth to the border when they get calls about new groups arriving. They give warm welcomes at the crossing, blankets to the shivering, temporary shelter and food after the long walk and translators for those who don’t speak English or French.