Refugee who lost fingers to frostbite wins bid to stay in Canada

Razak Iyal, a refugee who lost fingers to frostbite after walking into Canada on Christmas Eve, has won his bid to stay in Canada.

'Our prayers have been answered,' says Seidu Mohammed, who crossed border with Razak Iyal on Christmas Eve

Razak Iyal's initial hearing before the Immigration and Refugee Board was delayed for administrative reasons. He won his case to stay in Canada on Tuesday. (Brett Purdy/CBC News)

Razak Iyal, a refugee who lost all his fingers to frostbite after walking into Canada on Christmas Eve, has won his bid to stay in Canada.

Iyal and his friend, Seidu Mohammed, walked through snowy farmers' fields to get to Manitoba, fearing deportation in the United States, where they had been living.

"I'm happy because if I go back to Ghana, I might lose all my life. But here I am, I just lost my fingers, but I'm still part of the society. I can do a lot of things that the people who have the fingers can do," Iyal said.

Razak Iyal, one of two asylum seekers who walked across the Canada-U.S. border in December and lost his fingers and toes because of severe frostbite, is photographed as he enters his refugee hearing in Winnipeg on Tuesday. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Both men are from Ghana and say they feared for their lives if they were sent back home. 

Mohammed, an outed bisexual man, found out in May he had been granted refugee protection and would be allowed to stay in Canada but a verdict in Iyal's refugee case, originally scheduled for March, was put off until Tuesday.

Iyal, 35, told CBC the delay had him worried about his future.

Mohammed was ecstatic to learn Tuesday that his friend would get to stay in Canada. 

"Our prayers have been answered," he said.

Feared death at hands of siblings

Iyal revealed Tuesday he feared death at the hands of his own siblings, who he says are trying to kill him over a dispute regarding his late father's estate.

He also says he was facing threats of jail, torture and possibly death from a powerful member of Parliament representing his region, and expressed further concern after Ghanaian media falsely identified him as a gay man for being friends with Mohammed.

Iyal and Mohammed's harrowing story of survival attracted international attention and shone a light on the wave of asylum seekers fleeing the United States. 

Razak Iyal, 35, and Seidu Mohammed, 24, crossed into Manitoba on a bitterly cold Christmas Eve 2016. (CBC)

Since the story of the two men was published, hundreds of other asylum seekers, including children and parents with babies, have made the treacherous trek on foot through farmers' fields, usually in the dead of night, to cross into Manitoba near the Emerson border.

The journey into Canada proved deadly for one Ghanaian woman who was found dead last month near Noyes, Minn., in a ditch less than a kilometre from the Canada-U.S. border.

Mavis Otuteye, 57, was living in U.S. with an expired visa and planned to go to Toronto to see her newborn granddaughter. She never made it across the border.

'No place in Ghana … he could ever be safe'

Many asylum seekers who've crossed the border say they became scared of being deported after U.S. President Donald Trump took office.

The wave of asylum seekers coming into Manitoba and Quebec has triggered calls from refugee advocates for the federal Liberal government to repeal the controversial Safe Third Country Agreement. 

The agreement between the U.S. and Canada forces asylum seekers to make a refugee claim in the first safe country they arrive in, with few exceptions.

Advocates say that's forcing refugee claimants to put their lives at risk and walk across the border. If they show up to an official port of entry, they will be turned away. The Liberals have stood their ground and said the agreement will not be changed. 

  Lawyer Bashir Khan, who represented both Iyal and Mohammed, said Tuesday's hearing went without a hitch. 
Lawyer Bashir Khan speaks to media after Iyal's refugee hearing in Winnipeg. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

Khan said a board member with the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, who appeared via video link from Vancouver, spoke about corruption in Ghana, discrimination against people living with disabilities and the false accusations Ghanaian media are making about Iyal in delivering her decision.

"There's no place in Ghana, which is a geographically very small country, that he could ever be safe."

Refugee who lost fingers to frostbite wins bid to stay in Canada

5 years ago
Duration 1:43
Razak Iyal, a refugee who lost all his fingers to frostbite after walking into Canada on Christmas Eve, has won his bid to stay in Canada.


​Austin Grabish is a reporter for CBC News in Winnipeg. Since joining CBC in 2016, he's covered several major stories. Some of his career highlights have been documenting the plight of asylum seekers leaving America in the dead of winter for Canada and the 2019 manhunt for two teenage murder suspects. In 2021, he won an RTDNA Canada award for his investigative reporting on the Canadian Museum for Human Rights, which triggered change. Have a story idea? Email:

with files from Cameron MacIntosh and Karen Pauls