We’ve seen the desperation of refugees risking their lives crossing the Mediterranean Sea to get to Europe, but we haven’t seen any risking their lives crossing the frozen prairie to get to Canada — until now.
On Dec. 24, Seidu Mohammad nearly froze to death walking from North Dakota toward the Canadian border at Emerson.
The man from Ghana spent more than seven hours walking outside and expects to lose most of his fingers.
"It hurts," he said, through peeling lips from his hospital bed. "It was cold. My eyelids, my ears, they were frozen." He said he’s grateful that frostbite didn’t take his feet. "I will be able to walk."
Mohammad was wearing three jackets and gloves and thought he was prepared for the cold. On that day, the temperature in southern Manitoba dropped to -20 C, but there was also a wicked wind gusting to 33 km/h, Environment Canada data show.
Mohammad said a fellow refugee claimant from Ghana with him was taken to hospital in Morris with less severe injuries.
They walked through deep snow to avoid alerting U.S. officials and reach the Canada Border Services Agency at Emerson, he said. "It was up to my hips."
'I can't go back'
What kept them going was knowing that if they gave up before getting to Canada, they would be taken to a detention facility in the United States, then be deported to Ghana.
"I can’t go back," Mohammad said. He had to flee Ghana because of his sexual orientation, he said.
They knew that if they managed to get to the Canadian border, they could file a refugee claim and make their case before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Canada’s immigration system is seen by human rights advocates and lawyers as more fair and thorough than that in the U.S.
When they realized they would likely freeze to death before getting to their destination, they started walking along the highway hoping someone on that frozen Christmas Eve night would pick them up.
"We tried stopping cars," Mohammad said. "Nobody stopped."
Picked up by trucker
Then, an older man driving a truck saw them and stopped. Mohammad said he was so weak, he could barely get inside the vehicle.
"My feet were nearly frozen."
If it weren’t for the trucker, who helped him get inside, he doesn’t think he’d have survived.
"I would lose my life. The doctors and nurses are saying I’m lucky because in another hour or two hours, things would have been so different."
On Wednesday night, Mohammad was surrounded by visitors — fellow refugees and refugee claimants from Ghana who arrived in Canada earlier.
One man, who identified himself only as Mohammad, said he walked over the border into Canada from the U.S. on Dec. 3, when it was -3 C.
"It was cold, but not this cold," said the man who met Seidu Mohammad at an immigration detention facility — a "camp" — in the U.S. where they were held for eight months.
Their refugee claims were dismissed, as most are.
Spike in Ghanaian refugee claimants
Lately, there has been a spike in the number of refugee claimants from Ghana crossing into Canada at Emerson, said Ghezae Hagos, an inland protection counsellor working with refugee claimants at Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council’s Welcome Place.
Until recently, it has been Somalis travelling the now well-worn route in which they’re driven from Minneapolis, Minn., to a point just south of the town of Emerson. There, they’re dropped off and told to walk the rest of the way to the Canadian side of the border where they can legally make a refugee claim.
Hagos is helping Mohammad and his travelling companion prepare their refugee claims. He hopes that news of what happened to Mohammad and his friend nearly perishing in the cold will deter other refugee claimants. But he doubts it.
"I don’t think it will stop them."
For Mohammad — who left his home in Ghana in 2015 and spent six months on planes, boats and buses to get to the U.S. before hoofing it into Canada — the perilous journey was worth life and limb.
"I don’t regret it," the 32-year-old said. "That’s life — trying to survive."