“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 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.
Mohamed 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.”