Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal nearly died in 2016 while sneaking across the Canada-US border during a frigid late December, hoping to gain asylum. Their experience made them the public faces of a wave of migrants to Canada who followed soon after.
It’s a warm, late summer evening under a wide prairie sky, and Seidu Mohammed is in his element.
The 26-year-old is on a football pitch, a defender at ease on the field, playing on a high-level amateur team in the Manitoba Major Soccer League.
A one-time professional player from Ghana, his career was derailed when he was outed as bisexual while training in Brazil in 2014.
He never returned home, fearing persecution for his sexuality in his country, and instead starting on a fateful journey that brought him to a Minneapolis bus station on Christmas Eve, 2016.
There he met Razak Iyal, 36, a fellow Ghanaian who had fled the west African nation when a family dispute over his father’s estate turned violent.
Both men were facing deportation back to Ghana after being denied refugee status in the US.
Instead they risked crossing into Canada, finding themselves struggling through a waist-deep field of snow in the night-time bid to cross the boundary between southern Manitoba and northern Minnesota.
They spent 10 hours outside, poorly dressed for the brutally cold winter landscape, wandering near a single-lane highway surrounded by farm fields, until a transport truck stopped to offer assistance.
Both had their fingers amputated due to frostbite and spent the next three months in hospital in Winnipeg, Manitoba.
The experience has brought the one-time strangers, born ten years apart in Accra, Ghana’s capital, close.
“It’s coincidence we are from the same city, same area, same community, but we never met before [that night],” Mohammed says, sitting on a sofa in Iyal’s modest apartment in central Winnipeg.
“We are like brothers, not friends.”
Says Iyal: “We go beyond friendship now.”
Over 30,000 other asylum seekers have followed in Mohammed and Iyal’s footsteps, illegally crossing the border before turning themselves over to authorities to make refugee claims.
The vast majority crossed at Roxham Road, a dead-end rural road in upstate New York that ends in a ditch and thin brush and, through that, the province of Quebec. The number of migrants has dropped since last summer, though just over 1,600 people still crossed in July.