Ghanaian community comes together to support frostbitten refugee claimants

As Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal recover from severe frostbite in a Winnipeg hospital, the Ghanaian community around them is coming together to support the pair of refugee claimants who walked into Manitoba from North Dakota on Christmas Eve.

Burden often on communities to support refugees before their claims are approved, advocate says

Maggie Yeboah, volunteer coordinator for African Communities of Manitoba and president of the Ghanaian Union of Manitoba, shown with Seidu Mohammed in hospital. Mohammed, a 24-year-old refugee from Ghana, was found on Highway 75 after crossing the US-Canada border and walking in the cold for several hours. (Maggie Yeboah)

As Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal recover from severe frostbite in a Winnipeg hospital, the Ghanaian community around them is coming together to support the pair of refugee claimants who walked into Manitoba from North Dakota on Christmas Eve.

Maggie Yeboah, president of the Ghanaian Union of Manitoba, says a single family stepped up with an $800 donation. The family asked not to be identified, she said.

"It's going to be used for clothing, since they don't have anything with them," Yeboah said. "Food, not so much, because the community is able to provide them food."

In addition to the donation, she said she's getting calls from others who want to help but don't know how. They're offering food, blankets, winter clothing - anything to help the two men start a life in Canada.

Yeboah said she herself has been bringing them lunch and dinner while they're in the hospital.

Once they're out, she plans to take them in. She has two spare bedrooms in her home and says she has offered shelter to other Ghanaian refugees in the past.
Seidu Mohammed will likely lose all his fingers and a toe after hours in the cold walking into Canada and waiting to be picked up. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Frostbitten refugees to lose their fingers

Mohammed, 24, and Iyal, 35, didn't know anybody when they arrived in Manitoba, but both said they're grateful to Yeboah and others who greeted them with kindness.

In an interview on Thursday, Mohammed referred to Yeboah as their godmother.

"She's a wonderful woman," he said. "She makes sure she's always there for us. We want to thank Auntie Maggie ... and all the guys who come and visit us. She's always there for us, ever since we came here."

The pair were complete strangers when they met in the United States and decided to flee to Canada. They had both been denied asylum in the U.S. and risked being deported or detained if they stayed in the country.

On Christmas Eve, they paid a cab driver in North Dakota to drop them off near the border. After a three-hour walk into Canada, they spent seven hours waiting on the highway for somebody to pick them up.

The journey left them with such severe frostbite doctors say they will have to amputate their fingers.

Burden on communities to support refugee claimants, advocate says

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees, said refugee claimants awaiting their hearing are often forced to rely on their communities of origin for settlement services.

Once they've filed their claim, refugee claimants are entitled to the standard social assistance in the province they're in in addition to limited, temporary health care under the Interim Federal Health Program.

But that's where the support ends, Dench said.

"In terms of services, it's very, very ad hoc and dependent upon the goodwill of the community, because the federal government does not provide any settlement services to refugee claimants," she said.

Many organizations that support newcomers don't offer programming for refugee claimants until their claims are approved because they don't get federal funding for it, Dench said.
Janet Dench is the executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees. She says refugee claimants often have to rely on the community for settlement services. (CBC)

"There's a huge burden that is really placed upon communities of origin where ... for a lot of people, they end up having to accommodate people and help them out with finding their way around and money and so on, and doing translation for them and so on, because the federal government really does not take on that kind of responsibility," she said.

The waiting period can last anywhere from months to years, she said.

"If you come from a country that has been designated by the minister, the so called designated countries of origin, you will be getting a hearing very soon, assuming that it goes forward," Dench said.

"Otherwise you're probably waiting three, four months before your hearing, and sometimes it can go on much longer."

Some refugee claimants who filed their claims before December 2012 are still waiting for their hearing, she said, thanks to a change in how refugees are processed.