An asylum seeker from Ghana who made international headlines when he nearly froze to death walking over the border Dec. 24 has been granted refugee protection in Canada.
Seidu Mohammed, 24, learned Wednesday night that the Immigration and Refugee Board (IRB) ruled he has "a well-founded fear of persecution" if he’s returned to Ghana.
"I’m happy I get to stay in this country," he said in an interview, thanking God and vowing to give back to the country that’s helped and protected him.
"God has put his hand on me and he protected me and he gave me this opportunity," Mohammed said, clutching the written decision with what’s left of his hands after losing his fingers and thumbs to frostbite. "I want to thank the IRB for accepting me in this country. I’m also trying to contribute a lot to this country because I see they have contributed a lot to me."
Mohammed’s refugee claim stated that, as a bisexual, it wasn’t safe for him to be returned to Ghana. The IRB member who heard his case on Mar. 23 agreed.
In Ghana, the act of "unnatural carnal knowledge" is defined as "sexual intercourse with a person in an unnatural manner or with an animal," and considered criminal, IRB adjudicator Preeti Adhopia said in her written decision. The punishment can lead to imprisonment for six months to 10 years. If a sexual minority in Ghana discloses their sexual orientation, they face eviction, extortion and forced marriage among other problems, she wrote.
"The evidence demonstrates that sexual minorities face discrimination, hostility, violence, stigmatization, prosecution and imprisonment," Adhopia wrote. "An individual’s sexuality is an innate and involuntary aspect of identity."
Ghana, she said, didn’t offer people like Mohammed adequate protection and, in fact, violates the fundamental rights and freedoms of sexual minorities.
Fear of being deported to Ghana — where he was a professional soccer player — is what drove Mohammed to head for Canada in the dead of winter instead of waiting a few months for warmer weather. His refugee claim in the U.S. had been rejected and he could’ve been sent back to immigration detention — or Ghana — at any time. "I was scared they’d take me back to detention," he said. "It’s a prison and we live with criminals — drug dealers, sexual abusers, a lot of people," he said, explaining the sense of urgency. "If I waited until now, I’m going to be deported back home and I don’t want to go home to get tortured or killed or get into prison. That’s why I made a decision to come to Canada."
Mohammed said he and a travelling companion were dropped off near the border by a smuggler and underestimated how cold it would be. In the dead of night, they overshot their targeted destination of Emerson and walked for seven hours until they were able to flag down a trucker near Letellier, Man. The two men spent several weeks in the hospital undergoing surgery and treatment. His companion is still waiting for his IRB decision.
Skin from Mohammed’s thighs was grafted onto to what’s left of his hands. Except for an infection on one of his legs from where the skin graft was taken, he said he’s doing better.
"I’m feeling well and I’m starting to get back on my feet so I can start to get some exercise and start to play soccer," he said. Until now, he’s only been able to watch it, spending weekends viewing English Premier League soccer and his favourite team, Manchester United. He’s living at Hospitality House Refugee Ministry residence and getting physiotherapy and occupational therapy and support from volunteers and the Ghanaian community. Mohammed said he’s looking forward to sharing his soccer skills and love for the game as a coach. He hopes to encourage young people to set goals and reach them.
"I want to make sure they achieve what they want in their life," he said. "I’m blessed with this opportunity in this country. And I will sacrifice anything I can to help this country go forward."
His lawyer, Bashir Khan, doesn’t doubt it.
"He was inspired by Canadian values from the first day he entered Canada," Khan said. "He’s going to contribute a lot." It will take about a year for Mohammed to become a permanent resident now that he’s eligible apply to become one, Khan said. In a few years, he expects Mohammed will obtain Canadian citizenship. Those are both formalities but as far as Khan is concerned, Mohammed is already showing he’s Canadian at heart.
"He’s one of us now."