After a harrowing three-year journey from Ghana to Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Panama, Mexico, the U.S. and then Winnipeg, in the end, Mohammed Antwi got to call Canada home — but not the way he'd wanted.
The stomach pains his fellow asylum seekers assumed were stress-related stomach ulcers turned out to be liver cancer. The 48-year-old mechanic from Ghana died on Canada Day at St. Boniface Hospital.
"He was a good person," said his close friend Zurekanani Adams in Winnipeg. "He was an elder in our group."
Antwi was part of a large group of Ghanaian refugee claimants who arrived in late November and shared an apartment in Winnipeg with Adams and Ahmed Osaa, whose refugee claim was recently accepted.
"He was a good, God-fearing person who liked to socialize and was open to people," said Osaa. "He always wanted to learn about people. He was accepting and very, very friendly."
The Ghanaians walked over the border on Nov. 26 and Nov. 27 after they were all dropped off several kilometres from the Canadian border and walked for nearly seven hours to get to Emerson, where they were intercepted by the RCMP. At the time, none of the asylum seekers knew Antwi was terminally ill, said Osaa.
"We laughed at him — how he carried his bag and would fall down and get up and fall down and get up again," he said.
When they arrived in Winnipeg and applied for refugee status, they shared a place together, and Antwi told Osaa he would often get pains in his stomach when he ate.
"We all think it's a stomach ulcer from stress," said Osaa, recalling how they thought Antwi would be OK if he avoided spicy foods.
The diagnosis of liver cancer came after Jan. 4, when they went for medical checkups required to obtain work permits, said Adams, who is related to Antwi through marriage. Antwi's blood test showed he had cancer, Adams said. He figures Antwi, who was vomiting blood in 2014 when they were both held in a U.S. immigration detention centre in Arizona, was likely diagnosed there but never received any treatment other than medication for the pain. Antwi didn't discuss his illness at the time, said Adams.
Antwi was a heavy-duty mechanic who owned Superior Motors in the Ghanaian town of Abogbloshie that repaired industrial trucks. When fire ripped though his uninsured shop in 2011 and destroyed several customer's vehicles, he was a wanted man, those familiar with his refugee claim said. He worked abroad for a year as a mechanic at Camp Dwyer, a U.S. Marine Corps base in Afghanistan, to try to make enough money to compensate his angry customers, who were also uninsured. When he returned to Ghana in 2012, it still wasn't safe for him, so he left for Brazil and made his way over land through South and Central America to Mexico and then the U.S.
His refugee claim was rejected in the U.S. by an immigration court judge in 2014 who said Antwi didn't prove he would be persecuted if he was returned to Ghana. He was released from detention, and his case was handed over to Homeland Security for eventual removal from the U.S. The next time Adams met Antwi was in New York in 2016.
"He seemed OK," said Adams. "He didn't seem sick." In photos on his Facebook page, a smiling Antwi is seen with photos of skyscrapers in the Big Apple. That was before the two men travelled to Minnesota by bus for the journey to Grand Forks, then walked to Canada.
In Canada, the Immigration and Refugee Board rejected Antwi's asylum claim. He was appealing that decision on the grounds his life would be endangered if he was returned to Ghana and that he wouldn't receive the protection of the state, said his lawyer, Bashir Khan.
Before his appeal could be heard, Antwi was vomiting blood again and taken to St. Boniface Hospital, said Adams.
He was there for nearly three months, said Maggie Yeboah, president of the Ghanaian Union of Manitoba. She knew Antwi from the day he arrived in Canada until the day before he died.
"He's one of the boys — I helped to find him a place," Yeboah said Monday. She and others in the Ghanaian community have rallied to help the asylum seekers. "They keep calling me 'their mom in Winnipeg,'" said Yeboah, who struggled to talk about Antwi's passing.
"Since he got sick I've been going to visit him at St. Boniface," said Yeboah, who has been to his bedside at least twice a week since Antwi was hospitalized. She's seen his condition worsen. "I told the boys they need to be going over there," Yeboah recalled.
Osaa said Antwi didn't have the strength to speak when he visited him June 24, so he read aloud from the Qur'an for the dying man. Adams said he last visited his friend on Friday and prayed for him. Antwi has been prayed over by members of his Muslim faith as well as Christians.
On Wednesday, Yeboah arranged for her church prayer group to meet her at the hospital, where they prayed for Antwi. Then, on Friday night, she visited him again for the last time. On Saturday, she found out he had died.
Toward the end of his life, Antwi was treated with kindness and dignity, his friends say.
"He had many doctors study him," said Adams. "They were giving him good care." Osaa said he believes Antwi would have suffered and gone untreated if he'd stayed in the U.S.
Antwi's funeral is at 2 p.m. Wednesday at Mosaic funeral home at 1006 Nairn Ave., with burial at the Muslim Cemetery inside the Transcona Cemetery, said Adams. He is survived by his parents and four children in Ghana, the oldest of whom is 20.
"He loved his family, and he loved Canada and one day wanted to see his family here," Adams said.