Grateful newcomers hope prosthetic hands will help them grab the Canadian dream

Two men who lost all their fingers to frostbite after crossing into Canada during bitter cold temperatures have been given a new lease on life with new prosthetic hands.

After losing their fingers to frostbite, men who survived frigid border trek planning to find jobs

Seidu Mohammed, left, and Razak Iyal have regained a big part of their independence with new prosthetic hands. Above, Peter ten Krooden, a prosthetist at Anderson Orthopedics, helps (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Two men who lost all of their fingers to frostbite in a near-fatal quest for asylum in Canada have been given a big part of their independence back.

For the first time in more than a year, Seidu Mohammed, 25, and Razak Iyal, 34, can pick up a coin or hold a coffee cup with one hand. Both have received prosthetic hands, allowing them to once again perform some of life's simplest tasks.

"We've been praying for it and God has answered our prayers and things are getting better always every day," said Mohammed Tuesday afternoon. Just hours earlier, he said, he had dropped change on the bus and couldn't pick it up.

Two Ghanaian men made international headlines after risking their lives to cross the frozen Canada U-S border into Manitoba on Christmas Eve 2016. 2:56

Tuesday was the first time he used his new prosthetic hands — called M-Fingers — which bend when a patient flexes his or her wrist. The moment brought tears to at least one person in the room.

"For him to pick up a coin, OK, and pick up that small screwdriver ... it's like, 'OK am I really seeing this? Is it true that now he can do that?'" said Stella Kankam, a member of Winnipeg's Ghanaian community.

Stella Kankam and Frank Indome, members of Winnipeg's Ghanaian community, have been helping take care of Mohammed and Iyal since they crossed into Canada in 2016. They wanted to capture the moment Mohammed got his new prosthetic hands. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Kankam has been supporting Iyal and Mohammed since they arrived in the city in December 2016. She has watched Mohammed at the dinner table, struggling to put food on his plate. "We have to scoop it for him," she said.

"It's been a lot of challenge in our life," added Mohammed. "Sometimes we get a little bit stressed out and frustrated."

A dream come true

Iyal received his prosthetic hands last Friday and was at Anderson Orthopedics Tuesday to see Mohammed get his pair. "Today's the day when I, we, got it and I'll say wow the dream come true," said Iyal.

"We want to work, we want to be part of the society, even to pay our taxes, we don't want to sit home taking ... assistance from the government. That's not what we think, that's not what we are here for. We are here to contribute to the country."

The two Ghanaian men made international headlines after their near-deadly Christmas Eve trek into Manitoba from the U.S. in 2016.

The prosthetic hands can pick up small things like screws and coins and work when a patient flexes his or her wrist. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

The men got lost on their walk into Canada, which they were making as part of a last-ditch effort to get asylum after spending time in American detention centres where they tried unsuccessfully to get refugee status. Both lost all their fingers. Iyal, however, was able to keep one thumb and part of the other.

Before coming to Canada, Mohammed said he feared for his life after being outed as a bisexual man. Iyal said he feared death at the hands of his own siblings over a dispute regarding his late father's estate.

Both men were granted refugee protection in Canada. They have since been followed by more than 1,000 fellow asylum seekers crossing the U.S. border into Manitoba in 2017 and more than 25,000 crossing into Quebec.

'Very very grateful' 

Both men said they wanted to thank Manitoba Health, which covered the cost of the prosthetic hands — about $10,000 a hand.

"We are very, very grateful for everything that they do for us," said Iyal.

Iyal, right, shows Mohammed how to use the hands Tuesday. Iyal got his last Friday and has already gotten good practice with them. (Austin Grabish/CBC)

Peter ten Krooden, a prosthetist at Anderson Orthopedics, said he's already used the M-Fingers on two other patients who have also had their fingers amputated after getting frostbite from Manitoba's brutal winter cold temperatures.

"We can never replace what he's lost unfortunately, but this, at least it does give him some quality of life back which is exciting to see him do so well," he said.

Two newcomers to Winnipeg who had to have all of their fingers amputated after getting severe frostbite during a near-deadly walk across the Canada-U.S. border have been given a big part of their independence back. 1:21

About the Author

Austin Grabish

Reporter

​Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg​ where he files for TV, web and radio. ​​Born and raised in Manitoba, Austin has had an itch for news since he was young. He landed his first byline when he was just 18. Before joining CBC, he reported for several outlets with work running across the country. He studied human rights in university and holds both a degree and diploma in communications.​ Connect with him here: austin.grabish@cbc.ca

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