Crossing the border illegally into Canada was the only option left for me

Seeking asylum in the U.S was not an option — not after President Donald Trump's anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. So I made my way to Canada. This was not an easy decision by any means.

Many people won't like it. I don't like it either

Seeking asylum in the U.S was not an option — not after President Donald Trump's anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. So I made my way to Canada. This was not an easy decision by any means. (Benjamin Shingler/CBC)

As I approached the Canadian border from Roxham Road on a sunny and beautiful July day earlier this year, my mind was scattered over the years of my struggled life. This was another struggle and something that I had to do — cross the border illegally.

I have been "illegal" many times in my life. In the early 1990s, when the Soviet-backed regime collapsed and the various Mujaheddin groups started fighting over controlling the capital city, Kabul, my family and I had to flee Afghanistan and cross the border to take refuge in Iran.

I had just finished grade four and was very excited to continue my school in Iran. However, problems started as soon as we were labelled "illegal."

Working as a child labourer

My dream to go to school, like other Iranian kids did, turned to desperate hopelessness. Instead, I became a child labourer who had to work to contribute to his family's subsistence. For the first time, I started to doubt my father's words who was quoting Ayatullah Khomeini, the Islamic Republic of Iran's founder, as saying "there was no border in Islam."

In reality, as I experienced, the borders were so rigid that did not recognize any rights for the fellow Muslims from the other side of the border — including the right to education for Muslim kids.

I spent 13 years of my life in limbo. My years as a teenager were filled with memories of discrimination, deprivation from civil rights and harassment. When we were able to return back to our country after the collapse of the Taliban regime, I felt like an old bird that was able to fly for the first time.   

While the Iranian government's discriminatory policies had prohibited me from going to school, they couldn't stop me from learning. As a result of my self-studying, I made my way to the American University of Afghanistan for my bachelor's degree and later obtained my master's degree from New York University in the United States.

I made the decision to come to Canada in spring 2018 around the time I was working with NYU on a research project in Afghanistan and regularly visiting New York on official business.

Security had deteriorated in Afghanistan, and civilians like me were particularly targeted because of their ethnic and religious affiliations. People were being attacked at mosques, at places of learning, at gyms, at cultural ceremonies and plenty of other places where groups get together.

My job with NYU came to an end in May, and seeking asylum in the U.S was not an option — not after U.S. President Donald Trump's anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric. So in July, I returned to New York as a tourist to visit friends and from there, made my way to Canada. This was not an easy decision by any means.

Leaving my network of professional connections, my friends, the city and country that I still loved and, above all, leaving behind my own family for an unknown period of time, were not easy choices.

As soon as I crossed the border, I could not stop contrasting the Canadian police's professionalism and humane conduct with my previous police experiences in Iran. After spending one night at a shelter in Montreal, I came to Ottawa where a couple of my Afghan friends live.

From day one, I started to find a job, which seems to be very challenging. I'm preparing for it by taking French class and doing volunteer work. However, the challenges are very different compared to my earlier refugee experiences. Here, I have to prove that I can be a good employee and an effective society member. My job applications might not receive positive response, as I lack Canadian job experience or Canadian education.

Some people might just simply not trust my capabilities because of where I come from, or how my name sounds. And some others might just not like refugees, particularly those who are called "illegal" border-crossers. I agree with them — I don't like the term "illegal" either — but crossing the border was the only option left for me.

That kind of opinion toward refugees doesn't distract me from the fact that Canada is proud and strong because of its diversity. As one of my new Canadian friends told me, "in Canada, where one has come is not as important as where one wants to go." And my challenge here is not to fight for my basic civil rights and survival; I'm challenged here to thrive and contribute back to society. And I am up to it.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


  • A previous version of this article erroneously implied that Mohammad Amin Sadiqi had left the U.S. for Canada while still working for NYU. In fact, he had already left his job with the university and was visiting New York as a tourist when he walked across the border to seek asylum.
    Dec 18, 2018 6:49 PM ET


Mohammad Amin Sadiqi holds a masters degree in Media, Culture and Communications from New York University. Recently settled in Ottawa, he has worked for many years in humanitarian sector in Afghanistan and is a refugee and education activist.