On Feb 3, 2017 Macleans reported: The taxi stopped at the side of the I-29 interstate after cruising north for about an hour. Their $400 in the cabbie’s pocket, he dropped off Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal a two-minute drive short of the North Dakota-Manitoba line. The driver pointed the men toward a darkened prairie field and a row of red blinking lights, wind turbines in the distance. Walk toward those lights, and they could grasp freedom.
“We didn’t feel any sign, but we could feel we are in Canada, because of the cold—very, very intense,” Mohammed recalls. By this point, they were a couple of hours into their trek through field and brush, unsure exactly where to stop. It was Christmas Eve, and fields outside Emerson, Man., were smothered in waist-high snow.
That “Canada” moment Mohammed recalls was a nasty wind gust that overwhelmed these underdressed African migrants, whipping off their flimsy gloves and Mohammed’s ballcap. By the time they wanted to dial 911 for police to retrieve them from the Manitoba roadside, their hands were frozen claws unable to grip a phone.
Razak Iyal in his room at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, January 25, 2017.
A trucker eventually rescued them, and a month later they were on a new, safer road, toward possible refugee status in Canada. But their frostbitten fingers are gone. Iyal has one thumb and a half-thumb left. Mohammed has nothing. As the 24-year-old former soccer player lies in his Winnipeg hospital bed a week after the amputation, the ends of his bandaged hands are left open to reveal the skin graft stapled over them to cover the wound. After recalling the extreme burning sensation of that night, the fear he might have died, he can’t stop staring at them in disbelief. “Look at my hands. Look, look,” Mohammed says, cheeks dripping with tears he cannot wipe away.
Seidu Mohammed, a 24-year-old who fled Ghana, had his fingers amputated earlier in the week.
The duo’s frostbite was a tragic cap to a surprisingly busy year for unanticipated refugees sneaking into Canada via Emerson. The RCMP intercepted 515 refugee claimants crossing near the border post last year—more than in the three previous years combined. They’re intercepted rather than “caught” because they want the police to bring them to the Canada Customs office to make their refugee claims, something current rules don’t let them do by coming in Canada’s front door.
They’re seeking refuge to the north because they fear deportation under the tough U.S. asylum system that existed before Donald Trump—and more and more these days, they’re not even trying their chances in the harsher new regime. “When I got to Canada, I felt so happy. I escaped from Donald Trump,” says Mouna, a Djiboutian who walked across the border three weeks after the U.S. election. The Ghanaian pair’s widely reported frostbite has proven no horror-story deterrent for those desperately seeking safety and freedom. Thirty-nine more arrived to Winnipeg’s largest refugee centre for help in frigid January, including eight on the Monday after the new U.S. President’s refugee and travel ban.