'It was the happiest moment': Asylum seekers who took risky Central American corridor cross into Canada

The experiences of two Somali men who crossed into Manitoba on the Canada Day weekend are emblematic of the new lengths some migrants fleeing violent hot spots are willing to take to reach Canada.

Somali men fled their home country and travelled well-trodden migration route

Guled Abdi Omar fled from Dadaab refugee camp in eastern Kenya after the militant Islamist group al-Shabaab attempted to forcibly recruit him. After a journey along a risky migration route through Central America and travel north through the U.S., the asylum seeker walked into Canada near Gretna, Man. (Marc Robichaud/CBC)

Their journeys spanned 400 days, involved crossing 15 borders on three continents and cost them nearly $40,000.

But earlier this month, as Canadians celebrated the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the two Somali asylum seekers who embarked on those risky journeys reached their final goal.

Their stories are emblematic of new lengths some migrants fleeing violent hot spots are willing to take to reach Canada — wooed by the ruling Liberal government's refugee rhetoric and drawn to a migration route through Central America that treats the United States as a country of transit rather than a destination.

Waiting for nightfall on July 2, Abdikadir Ahmed Omar and Guled Abdi Omar walked through the sprawling canola fields that blanket the U.S.-Canada border near Gretna, Man.

Abdikadir Ahmed Omar hopes to bring his wife and young son to Canada. (Marc Robichaud/CBC)

Crouching carefully to be hidden by the tall crops, the men walked for hours in the direction of the blinking lights of the wind turbines they had been told were a sure sign they had reached Canada.

"I was the one that dialed 911," says Abdi Omar of the moment the two men believed they had crossed the border into Canada.

"But still, even when [the police] came, I was a little bit worried because the uniform is almost the same [as U.S. Border Patrol]."

But when the two men noticed a small Canadian flag on the sleeve of one of the officer's uniforms, relief began to wash over them for the first time in more than a year.

'I am a free man'

"It was the happiest moment. I am in Canada, and I am relaxed.... I am not being chased by the police in the United States, I am not being put into detention. I am a free man," says Ahmed Omar.

"It was then I knew, thanks to God, that right now I am 100 per cent safe." 

CBC News first met Ahmed Omar, 30 and Abdi Omar, 27, in Mexico City in February, shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning refugee admissions to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia.

At the time, they were living alongside dozens of other African migrants who had fled their home countries and had travelled a well-trodden migration route that snakes north from Brazil through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

Fadel Al-Shawwa, a volunteer services counsellor for the Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council, explains the house rules asylum claimants must follow while living in temporary housing. (Lisa Laventure/CBC)

It is a route that once led migrants to the U.S. But mounting anxiety in the Somali diaspora about an uptick in deportations coupled with concerns about a political climate increasingly hostile to Muslims mean many African migrants whose journeys would have once ended in diaspora hubs such as Minneapolis are choosing to continue to Canada.

Ahmed Omar fled Somalia in June 2016 after an attack on his home by the militant islamist group al-Shabaab. Abdi Omar left his home in the Dadaab refugee camp, in eastern Kenya, shortly after, when the same group attempted to forcefully recruit him.

Both men decided the Mediterranean Sea migration route to Europe, increasingly cut off in response to the overwhelming refugee crisis, was not an option. Both opted for flights to Brazil and to travel mostly by foot to Canada.

The two men met in Choluteca, Honduras, on Jan. 18, 2017, and committed to travelling together as a team along the rest of the route, on which migrants are targeted by smugglers and are victims of theft and assault.

Stranded in Mexico

But by the time they were in Mexico City, struggling to find beds in the capital's few migrant hostels, they realized they were stranded.

The Mexican government would only give them a temporary humanitarian visa to transit through the country, but both men feared the risks of travelling through the United States at a time of travel bans and heated anti-Muslim rhetoric.

"I am a black man, I am a Muslim, and I am a Somali. So in three ways, it is not possible for me to go to the United States," Ahmed Omar told CBC News in February.

But with little to eat and struggling to find shelter, desperation propelled the two men forward.

They carefully considered where to cross. Stories from other migrants they met in Mexico about being caught by Mexican drug cartels, who frequently smuggle, kidnap and extort migrants attempting to cross the border, frightened the two men.

Ahmed Omar, 30, left, and Abdi Omar, 27, met in Honduras in January 2017. They travelled through Mexico and the United States together to Canada. They hope to relocate to the same city in Canada if granted refugee status. (Marc Robichaud/CBC)

After careful research, Ahmed Omar and Abdi Omar decided to travel to Tijuana to jump the wall that separates Mexico from the United States on April 9, 2017.

"It is a very militarized area, so after I jumped it was a very scary moment," says Ahmed Omar. "I saw 12 to 14 [men on motorbikes] running after us. The ground is full of sensors, but it was dark and we couldn't see anything.

"I was being arrested by well-armed border patrol agents who were having all kinds of military gear. It was a very terrifying, scary moment."

Released on bond

"The first person I talked to or engaged with was a border security agent who was well-geared like a commando guy, and he told me: 'Where are you from?' I answered, Somalia," adds Ahmed Omar.

"And he told me: 'You are a f--king terrorist.'"

The two men were arrested, granted security and asylum interviews and transported to the Otay Mesa Immigration Detention Center in San Diego.

The judge cried when she heard my story.- Guled Abdi Omar

Ahmed Omar was held for 40 days before being released on bond for nearly $6,000 US.

"I paid only $6,000, another Somali guy paid $10,000," says Ahmed Omar. "Another very nice, but poor, guy from Ghana, they tell him to pay $20,000. It's another way to say, you have to go back to your country. I was able to pay because I sold my house in Somalia."

Abdi Omar was released on bond June 6.

"The judge cried when she heard my story," he says. "She just worried for me when she read my credible fear form [...] and gave me the lowest amount, $1,500 to come out of detention."

Planning the next steps

Abdi Omar travelled to St. Cloud, Minn., to spend Ramadan with the city's large, tight-knit Somali community.

While there, 52 Somali men and women Abdi Omar says he grew up with in Dadaab refugee camp, almost all of whom he says migrated to the U.S. legally, held an emergency meeting to help him plan his next steps.

"But they told me that even though they came [to the United States] legally, they now lived in fear of deportation. They said, go forward, Canada is safe for you."

Fadel Al-Shawwa, left, and Ayale Mohamud, centre, help Ahmed Omar and Abdi Omar fill out the paperwork necessary to apply for asylum in Canada. (Lisa Laventure/CBC)

The two men planned the last leg of their journey from Minnesota. They say they found a man willing to drive them to the border for $700 US and point them in the direction of Canada.

"He pointed to a tree, and he says, use that as a guide. We called it our north pole," says Abdi Omar.

The two men can't help but contrast their experiences entering the United States with that of entering Canada.

"Totally different. I felt like I was a human when they captured me. They told me I was under arrest but they didn't put me in handcuffs, they just take me to the border, gave me some food, blankets and water," says Abdi Omar.

'I feel like I am at home'

Within hours, they were transported to Gretna, a small Mennonite community with a population of approximately 500 where an emptied seniors' residence has been converted into temporary migrant housing.

Five hours after they arrived, Ahmed Omar says they were invited by local teenagers to play soccer and learn how to square dance.

"I feel like I am at home. I come from the border, and in hours, I am in the school dancing, playing soccer, drinking water, eating watermelon with the whole community, the local people."

"The first day, I felt like no one cares if I am from Somalia, what is my race or what is my religion."

After thousands of kilometres behind them, the two men have only one goal left — preparing for their refugee board hearings. Those are supposed to happen within three months, but many are being delayed because of a backlog in security checks and a shortage of board members to hear the cases of asylum seekers.

Their hearings are currently scheduled for early September. If they are found to be inadmissible to Canada by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada, both men could be deported to Somalia.

"I was patient for a long time. I have been through a lot of difficult situations, so this will be the last, and I have to fight for it, and win it. There is no going back," says Ahmed Omar.

"I do not think the Canadian system can fail me. I hope that it will never fail me."