One year after they nearly died walking across the border into Canada, two Ghanaian refugees say the upcoming Christmas Eve anniversary of their journey is bittersweet.
“It’s going to be sad but I will be more happy than being sad because I’m alive,” said Seidu Mohammed, 25.
Mohammed and Razak Iyal lost all their fingers to frostbite after losing their way while walking through farmers’ fields into Manitoba from the United States. Their harrowing story attracted worldwide attention.
“It’s very difficult for me,” said Iyal, 35. “Lose your fingers [in] just one night and your life just changes totally.
“We can’t forget about that night.”
Iyal and Mohammed’s story shone a light on the risks asylum seekers coming from the United States were willing to take to get to Canada.
“Some people say, ‘Oh, I heard your story even since I was in Mexico. I heard your story and I was thinking, how you doing?'” said Iyal.
“A lot of people were worried about what happened to us.”
Mohammed left Ghana for Brazil in 2014 to train professionally as a soccer player. He said while there, he was outed as bisexual after a team manager found him with another man he had met at an LGBT club. He applied for asylum in the United States but was denied.
He later met Iyal, who said he feared death at the hands of his own siblings over a dispute regarding his late father’s estate.
The two men decided to flee north and were later granted asylum in Canada. They both say they are now doing well and recently completed a business course for newcomers taught by SEED Winnipeg, a non-profit anti-poverty agency.
For Iyal, who had a barbershop and electronics store back home, the course is the first step towards one day opening an African-style barbershop in Winnipeg.
“My dream is to bring that in here in Canada,” he said.
Mohammed hopes to learn marketing skills he can use when he starts coaching kids who want to learn how to play soccer.
In the meantime, he’s working to improve his English. He’s applied to a program at Red River College and hopes to start in the new year if he’s accepted.
Both men say they are determined to find work and are getting help with their job searches from a local disability group.
“I’m very very excited about that because there’s not any job I can do for now because a lot of jobs require your fingers,” Iyal said.
Learning to live without fingers has made some of the simplest things in life difficult for both men.
Iyal said one of the most difficult daily tasks is doing something most people take for granted — such as pulling out his ATM card and wallet.
“It’s very very difficult for me. I can’t lie to you,” he said.
Mohammed uses a special pen to text on his iPhone, but struggles to take the phone out of his pocket to receive calls.
He’s gotten help with other challenges like zippers and had a tailor sew Velcro onto his pants to make things easier.
New friends in LGBT community
Both men said they are proud to call Winnipeg their new home and don’t plan to leave.
Iyal hopes to one day be reunited with his wife, Cynthia, who is still in Ghana. He talks with her on FaceTime regularly. They’ve been apart for five years.
“I will be coming to Canada,” she told CBC on a FaceTime call from Ghana.
The men say people in Winnipeg have given them a lot of opportunities.
Mohammed has pursued his dream of playing soccer and went to his first Pride celebration in June. He’s discovered drag queens thanks to the folks at Sunshine House, which has a community drop-in with a drag program.
“He looked very pretty in that dress,” Mohammed said, laughing while talking about one of his new friends there.
“Ever since I came here they are so supportive.”
Mohammed and Iyal have themselves helped other asylum seekers who’ve crossed over border into Manitoba.
Iyal is living with one man who made the trek this fall before the cold set in. The man doesn’t know if he’ll be granted asylum.
Nearly 1,000 asylum seekers crossed from January to October this year alone, according to recent federal numbers. The Ghanaian community in Winnipeg continues to grow as more Ghanaian people living in the United States head north in search of refuge. They often come from Minneapolis.
Many have stories similar to Mohammed and Iyal’s. Many have spent time in detention centres in the United States.
‘We wish everyone happy holiday’
Both men say they are forever grateful they were able to leave detention and were granted asylum in Canada.
“We take this opportunity to thank everyone and we wish everyone happy holiday,” said Iyal.
They mentioned people like Maggie Yeboah, president of the Ghanaian Union of Manitoba, who’s been by their side since they were rushed to the burn ward in a Winnipeg hospital. The men, and other asylum seekers, call her “Auntie Maggie.”
“She’s a very wonderful woman and we’ll never forget what she has done for us,” said Mohammed.
But both men also wanted to thank one man in particular — the anonymous truck driver who stopped and called 911 the night they crossed over the border.
“Every day when we pray we remember him in the prayers, because if not because of him, we could have died,” Iyal said.