'Everything started to change': An asylum seeker explains why he illegally crossed into Canada

Like hundreds of others, Sid Ahmed Tfeil fled the United States and crossed illegally into Quebec last month seeking refugee status. The 32-year-old from Mauritania, who fears for his life if returned back, is hoping to start a new life in Montreal.

Sid Ahmed Tfeil left Mauritania in 2011, built life in U.S., but fled after election of Donald Trump

Sid Ahmed Tfeil, a native of Mauritania, says he thought about illegally crossing the border for days before doing it. (Radio-Canada)

Sid Ahmed Tfeil wrestled with the idea of leaving behind the life he had built in New York City and abandoning his dream of one day becoming a U.S. citizen.

But when he was arrested after crossing illegally from the U.S. onto Canadian soil this past January, he knew he had made the right decision.

"I have to leave this country, I have to cross this border. I have to achieve my goal, I have to put my feet in a safe place," Tfeil recalled telling a U.S. border agent who warned him that if he left, he'd never be able to come back.

The 32-year-old from Mauritania is one of hundreds of asylum seekers who have crossed illegally into Canada from the U.S. in recent weeks.

Like many others, he walked across the border on Roxham Road, a quiet residential street in Champlain, N.Y..

Tfeil said he fled Mauritania, in North Africa, after being arrested in 2011 for writing and sharing pro-democratic posts on Facebook that were critical of the government while working as a journalist.

He said he was abused for several days before being released.

It was at that moment he knew he had to leave, or risk death.

"I was afraid, when you get arrested you don't know what's going to happen," said Tfeil, who had a colleague sentenced to be executed for writing articles critical of the government.

Changes under Trump

Tfeil said he arrived in the United States in 2011 and applied for asylum in 2012. In the meantime, he began building a life and eventually found a job with a human rights organization.

He had hoped to one day bring his son, who is now eight, from Mauritania over to the country he grew to love. But that all changed this past November.

Tfeil said he was afraid of the anti-immigrant discourse growing under U.S. President Donald Trump and felt he had to leave or could face deportation back to Mauritania. (Alex Wong/Getty)

"I love the United States so much, I proved myself there. But the problem after the election and the hate from Donald Trump . . . everything started to change," he said.

"It wasn't the United States I was dreaming of being part of. It made me scared." 

Tfeil began to fear for his life. He saw Trump's tweets, some of which he considered to be anti-immigrant, and worried that he may be deported to Mauritania.

In December 2016, Tfeil had a U.S. immigration hearing. After waiting more than five years to see a judge, he hoped his file would move quickly.

But after being told his next hearing would only be in 2018, he started to worry his claim would never be accepted and felt he had to act.

Hatching a plan with a friend, Tfeil drove from New York City right up to the border on Jan. 16, four days before the inauguration of Donald Trump, and began walking.

All he had with him was a bag packed with a few items of clothes, his computer and a camera.

Rush of emotion crossing border

He met a U.S. border agent who warned him about not returning after crossing, then a Canadian border agent who told him to turn back and said what he was doing was illegal. Tfiel told the agent he understood, but that he was a refugee.

He compared that moment of crossing the border to the feeling of winning a marathon.

"You cannot imagine my feeling when I crossed the border. I felt like I did something amazing," Tfeil said.
CBC's French-language service Radio-Canada caught the moment 32-year-old Sid Ahmed Tfeil was detained by an RCMP officer after illegally crossing into Canada. (Radio-Canada)

Tfeil said he was brought to a processing centre where he was interviewed and filled out paperwork. In all, it took about eight hours, and then he was on his way to Montreal in a taxi.

New life begins in Montreal

While living with other asylum seekers at YMCA Residence on Tupper Street in Montreal, Tfeil said he felt welcomed and had the sense that many, like him, were happy to be in Canada.

Now living in an apartment in Côte-des-Neiges, Tfeil said he is preparing for an upcoming Canadian immigration hearing on March 16.

Many asylum-seekers are housed at the YMCA residence on Tupper Street in Montreal. (Radio-Canada)
"I cross my fingers, I'm so excited and afraid. I have a lot of emotion," he said.

"I told myself not to think of the worst things. I'm trying to be an optimist."

If he's allowed to stay, Tfeil said he'd like to go to university here and study journalism. He hopes that he'll be able to work as an advocate for human rights, and still dreams of one day reuniting with his son.

With files from CBC Montreal's Daybreak, Cecilia MacArthur and Radio-Canada's Bahador Zabihiyan