WINNIPEG, Manitoba — There are many differences between the two Ghanaian refugees in Winnipeg, but the most significant comes down to a single thumb.
Razak Iyal and Seidu Mohammed became the public face of desperation among refugees in the United States after President Donald Trump’s election. A trucker found them half-frozen north of the Canadian border on Christmas Eve. They had walked — sometimes waist deep in snow — across farm fields to avoid being deported from the United States. Their fingers were so severely frostbitten that all of them had to be amputated — with the exception of Iyal’s right thumb.
That single digit means he can fry up his own breakfast, pull on his clothes and pinch the knob of the washing machine to do his laundry. “That thumb I have left helps me a lot,” said Iyal, 35, a former appliance store owner from Accra, Ghana. “I thank God for it.”
Both men won permission to stay permanently in Canada. But while they are rebuilding their lives, their story has become a focus of sympathy and criticism among advocates in Canada, who say their fate shows that the United States is not fair or safe for refugees.
Some advocates argue that Canada should scrap its 13-year-old pact with the United States that requires asylum seekers to demand refuge in the first country of the two in which they arrive. After arriving in one country, refugees are not allowed to enter the other at an official border crossing, which creates a perverse incentive to sneak across the border and then seek asylum.
“We are forcing people to lose fingers and toes, making them go to such lengths to seek our protection,” said Efrat A. Arbel, an assistant law professor at the University of British Columbia.
Others say the story of Iyal and Mohammed is more an example of stupidity mixed with opportunism, pointing out that neither fled their country because of persecution.
“They haven’t had to flee over the bodies of their relatives or undergo torture,” said Karin Gordon, executive director of settlement at the Hospitality House Refugee Ministry in Winnipeg, which has a waiting list of about 30,000 refugees looking for sponsorship to Canada.
While Gordon supports both men personally — and welcomed them into the refugee home she runs in north Winnipeg — she blames them for losing their fingers.
“They should have checked the Weather Channel,” she added, noting they were underdressed for the frigid prairie temperatures. “They were damaged by their own ignorance. They are suffering the consequence of that.”
Three refugee-supporting organizations, including Amnesty International, have started a legal challenge to Canada’s designation of the United States as a “safe country” for asylum seekers under the pact, the Safe Third Country Agreement.
But Canada’s minister of immigration, refugees and citizenship, Ahmed Hussen, says government monitoring reports show the U.S. system remains fair.
Despite fears among residents along the border that the men would be the first of many to be in the same plight, the rush of asylum seekers heading north has slowed with the warming weather.
“We don’t encourage people to come,” Iyal said. “But if you come, please, check the weather before. My life changed totally. They have to take a lesson from what happened to us.”
The men met by chance on Dec. 23, in a Minneapolis bus station. Each had planned to walk across the border from northern Minnesota into Manitoba, and they decided to join forces and split the fare for a cab. Both admit they were underdressed for the trip, which for both men was the last leg of a long journey across many borders, beginning in Brazil years before.
Iyal left Ghana after a dispute over inheritance with his brothers became violent and put him in the hospital. Police, he said, were unwilling to take action. He bought a ticket to São Paulo, Brazil, and from there, made his way slowly — by plane, bus, boat and foot — to the U.S. border, where he filed for asylum and was detained for 21 months.
Mohammed’s journey also took to him to Brazil, trying out for a professional soccer team. After his agent found him in bed with a man — an act that could get him imprisoned in Ghana, where gay sex remains illegal — and threatened to expose him, Mohammed fled. He, too, made the arduous journey to the United States, where he also asked for asylum and spent seven months in detention.
Both men lost in their hearings. The system, they say, was rigged against them; they could not afford lawyers, nor long-distance phone calls back to Ghana to assemble their cases.
In Canada, they were granted legal aid and won their cases.
Mohammed clearly met the Canadian legal definition of a refugee under U.N. rules because his sexual orientation meant he would have been persecuted had he returned to Ghana, said Bashir Khan, the immigration lawyer who represented both men.
Iyal’s case was a much less likely bet because he was fleeing a family spat, and not obvious persecution, Khan said. But his chance encounter with Mohammed and their fateful night together in the snow led the media in Ghana to state repeatedly that both men were gay, even though Iyal had a wife back in Ghana. That perception put his life at risk and gave him a good legal case to win asylum, Khan said.
In Winnipeg, the two men are quasi celebrities. Their cellphones ring regularly with unexpected invitations. The small Ghanaian community has rallied to their support, helping them fill out forms for passports and social insurance numbers and stocking their refrigerator with fufu and peanut stew.
They have both begun occupational therapy to learn how to do basic things like brushing their teeth.
The road ahead is daunting, particularly for Mohammed, 24, who has only two paddle-like hands. His plastic surgeon has offered to transfer two toes from each foot, which would operate like fingers and offer him complete independence — with all costs covered by Canada’s social medicine program.
“He is crazy lucky,” said Dr. Edward Buchel, head of plastic surgery for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. “He ended up in a country willing to put out multimillion dollars for repeated hospital trips, surgeries, drugs, rehab, physiotherapy and occupational therapy for years.”
But to date, Mohammed has adamantly refused. He quit school at 11 to train full time as a soccer player, and he dreams of playing professionally again. For that, he thinks he needs his toes.
Iyal’s prospects seem brighter.
Every morning, he showers, makes himself breakfast and boards a city bus to a charity for Muslim women, where he volunteers daily. There, he sorts donated clothing and distributes food as a volunteer among a boisterous crowd of Ghanaian men, who challenge him continually to prove himself.
“Put your coin on the ground,” he proclaimed to one and then, with the help of a simple Velcro strap, picked it up to cheers. “I can do it!”
He dreams of running an appliance store, like the one he owned in Ghana, and sponsoring his wife to come to Canada. God, he said, kept him and Mohammed alive for a reason.
Iyal understands his luck at starting life again. He rarely dwells on what he has lost, he said.
Last week, after finishing his volunteer shift, he stopped to give a homeless man on the street some money. The man asked to see his hands, and then held up his own — revealing no fingers. He too had lost his fingers to frostbite, Iyal said.
“He was a Canadian guy, on the street begging,” he said. But then, he stoked his optimism again and reminded himself of his luck.
“He doesn’t have one thumb,” Iyal said. “I encourage myself. I can do something in my life. I’m a young boy. I can still make it.”