Refugees who lost fingers to frostbite in near-fatal 2016 bid to cross border become Canadian citizens
'This is like gold,' says Seidu Mohammed of citizenship certificate that he sees as licence to give back
Two men who nearly died in 2016 during their treacherous walk across the Canada-U.S. border in the frigid cold say it's a privilege to finally call themselves Canadians.
With the red and white of the Canadian flag draped over their back, Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal became citizens of their new home in separate virtual ceremonies earlier this month.
Mohammed, 30, was the first of the two men who lost all their fingers to frostbite to receive his citizenship certificate in the mail.
"It's beautiful how it looks. Very beautiful. So I'm protecting it with my life," he says, chuckling, as he shows off the certificate, protected by a plastic sleeve, that once seemed like an improbable keepsake.
"I don't want it to get like any stains on it, or anything. I protect it that way because this is like gold."
"It's who you are," Iyal, 40, adds.
The men from Ghana were previously strangers, and have since become like brothers. They say they're overjoyed to become citizens of a country that's helped them ever since the harrowing night they entered Canada, near Emerson, Man. They now live in separate units in a central Winnipeg apartment complex.
Iyal said the occasion brought back memories of his chance encounter on Dec. 24, 2016, with the truck driver who stumbled upon the men that fateful evening and called 911 on their behalf.
Iyal remembers the first questions he asked of the driver.
"I asked this guy, 'Am I in Canada? Are we in Canada?' And he told us, 'Yes.'"
Fearing deportation in the United States, where they had been living, Iyal and Mohammed walked through snowy farmers' fields to get to Manitoba.
"And today, we are Canadian citizens. That is very, very amazing thing that happened in my life," Iyal said.
In advance of his citizenship ceremony, Iyal was gifted a Canadian flag from a longtime friend, which he now hangs on the wall beside his bed. He said he admires it every night.
Feared for their lives
Both men are from Ghana and have previously said they feared for their lives if they were sent back home. Iyal said his own siblings are trying to kill him over a dispute regarding his late father's estate.
Mohammed, who was outed as a bisexual man during a soccer training camp, worried for his safety. Ghana's law forbids "unnatural carnal knowledge," and while that doesn't lead directly to prosecutions, human rights groups said it's part of frequent abuse and discrimination toward LGBT populations.
The men's near-fatal bid for refuge in Canada drew international attention and shone a light on the risks that thousands of asylum seekers coming from the United States were willing to take to get to Canada. Their refugee claims were accepted in 2017.
Mohammed treats his Canadian citizenship with a sense of duty.
"Canada is not just my home, it's part of who I am as a person," he said.
"It comes with a lot of responsibilities, too, and those responsibilities are the people around us … helping the communities, helping people. Those are the things that means a lot to me, being a Canadian citizen."
Mohammed gives back to the community already as co-founder of the Manitoba African Cup of Nations, which hosts annual soccer tournaments for the Black community, as well as his opportunity to coach inner-city youth in soccer.
He's hoping to get into university and one day develop a customized T-shirt printing business.
Bringing his wife over
Iyal is working in housekeeping at a hotel and also hopes to pursue further schooling. But first, he's focused on bringing his wife from Ghana to Canada. She's got an interview on Monday in the hopes of getting her visa, he said.
He's visited his wife twice in the neighbouring country of Togo, but otherwise they've been separated since 2012. They continue to talk every day.
"I do my best because I love my wife and she also loves me," he said.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
With files from Shannah-Lee Vidal, Austin Grabish