Hussein Ahmed and Mohamed Hossain moved as quickly as they could through the waist-deep snow. They were fleeing the United States for Canada, terrified but determined to get to safety.
“Sometimes we were crawling,” Ahmed, 34, says. “It was terrible. … I thought I would never survive such a field of ice.”
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. Many had never seen snow in their home country, let alone walked miles in it.
“Almost I became swallowed in the ice,” Ahmed says.
And then the Canadian border lights were behind them. They called 911, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers came, and the men requested asylum.
The long journey, the steep price, and the fear had been worth it, the men say. 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.
“I could pay whatever it takes because the price is my life,” Ahmed says. “I know if I stay in the United States, I would be deported.”
Town struggles to balance safety, support
Ahmed and Hossain were two of 25 people who crossed into the small border town of Emerson this weekend. Sixty-nine have come in a month and a half, according to local officials.
“I have seen them walking around town, more than a number of times, where I’ve seen five people coming across, walking down the highway, sleeping on the side of the highway,” Emerson Fire Chief Jeff French says.
Some have no phone and begin knocking on doors at 2 a.m. or 3 a.m., residents say.
“It started with a trickle and has now increased to a flood stage,” resident Brenda Piett says. “Some people are scared, nervous. Locking their doors. This town most people never locked their doors. But recently they are.”
Twenty percent of the calls the municipality’s fire department takes are now related to asylum seekers found entering town, French says.
The sheer number of those entering Emerson prompted an emergency town meeting. There’s somewhat of a crisis – of conscience and policy. Many say they recognize the people fleeing in these conditions are clearly desperate, but the safety and security of the border and their town are just as important.
“This town is really good people here,” says the municipality leader, Greg Janzen. “We are coping with it.”
But he knows as the weather gets warmer, larger numbers could come across the melting fields. So the town is preparing. Residents talk about their hope the screening process works, and that everyone gets vetted.
“That is always in the back of your mind – when you are getting these people coming in for one thing, they are breaking the law, so right away they are criminals,” Janzen says. “And in the back of your mind you are thinking of terrorism. On the other hand, you are thinking of the safety of the residents. … Is it going to get worse? Are we going to get different kinds of people coming across the border?”
While border jumpers are not new in this town, the numbers are. What began as a few here and there has become groups of five or six, then groups of 10, families clutching children as young as 6 months.
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.
Sometimes drivers shuttle for three trips in one day.
“People are running for their lives. They are running for safety, running for their families,” Chahal says. “When somebody comes into a new country, they don’t know the language, often, they don’t know their way around, so it’s really important to help them navigate.”
Risking life and limb to save themselves
Razak Ioyal and Seidu Mohammed know the scars the trek to Canada can leave – both temporary and long-term.
“The doctors had to cut all my fingers,” Mohammed says. They took skin from his thigh to help repair the skin burned by frostbite.
The two men from Ghana had no idea the journey would be so emotionally and physically brutal when they set out in December for Canada.
“When you step your leg in the snow you can’t pull it out. So you have to put your hand to help your feet to pull it out,” Ioyal says.
They did this for three hours, the men said. Ioyal says his hands were so frozen it sounded like when glasses are clinked together. Neither man even knew what frostbite was.
“Something was burning inside me,” Mohammed recalls. “I was telling Seidu that … we have to give up.”
They reasoned it was better to go on than risk being sent back to the United States. But, in that moment Ioyal says he thought they might die in that field.
“We were thinking it was going to be no more,” he says.
They reached a highway around 2:30 a.m. and didn’t know they’d already made it into Canada. The highway, town officials say, was closed at the time because of the treacherous weather. The men were stranded, with nobody to see them and call for help.
“We were standing in front of the highway for almost about seven good hours,” Ioyal says. “That’s where we decided that we should give up our life … we just give everything to God. “We just raised our hand. We shouting ‘help, help.’”
They eventually were found, taken to a hospital for their wounds and now have hope for a second chance at a life free of persecution. Both men had dreamed of asylum in the United States. But when they were denied, they say they had no choice but to go north. Going home would be deadly.
Mohammed says he fled Ghana because he was labeled a criminal.
“I am wanted … because of my sexual, sexual orientation,” he says. “If they didn’t kill me … I would go to jail.”
Was it worth everything they endured? The men say they had no other choice.
Canadians ‘saved my life’
Ahmed and Hossain say they were drawn to America as the land of opportunity, home of refugees, a place that cherishes human rights.
Both the Ghanaians and Somalis, along with dozens of others who have arrived since last fall, can only express gratitude for how they were welcomed to Canada.
Hossain now proudly dons a shirt with a Canadian flag. He specifically asked to put it on before he spoke to CNN. He smiled from ear to ear after placing it over his head.
They all express boundless gratitude for Canadians in general, and those working at the Welcome Place.
“Today I have some hope,” Ahmed says. “At least I have the hope that I would be safe in this country.”
“I thank to the government of Canada and the people of Canada and to the people at Welcome Place,” Hossain says. “I say thanks to these people because they have saved my life.”
Chahal says her team will guide them through the asylum process, help them find work and provide skills training.
“Successful settlement happens when you support one another,” Chahal says. “Because at the end of that, those people who have been supported are so grateful and they have integrated well and they always, always give back.”
Hossain and every other asylum seeker who came through Chahal’s doors, seems to feel their days of fleeing might finally be over.
“We feel like we are home, that’s how we feel,” Hossain says. “And the Canadian people open their hands for us. They welcome us like we are part of them.”