Troubled trek: Asylum-seekers’ journey took them through frozen fields to Winnipeg homeless shelter
WINNIPEG, Manitoba—The three men had walked similar routes to get to the homeless shelter in Winnipeg.
But their road is a little different than many of those they now share residence with.
That's because Ibrahim Dumfeh, Appiah Owsu and Majeed Haruna Agure—all originally from Ghana in West Africa—are trying to claim asylum status in Canada after walking over the border between Manitoba and North Dakota.
Dumfeh and Owsu say they left home to flee vigilante violence, both accused of being homosexuals, a condition they say is a potential death sentence in their home country.
It's a story not uncommon to the men who arrive in Canada from West Africa.
Agure is more vague when describing what pushed him from home, saying only he was trying to escape violence. The men came separately and haven't been in Canada long, ranging from more than a month to just about a week.
Now, after making a dangerous trek north through robberies in Central America, imprisonment in the U.S. and a final, icy trek through dormant farm fields, the three find themselves in the sparse quarters of the Salvation Army-operated Booth Center—and among 1,000-plus individuals picked up since the start of 2017 by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police after walking into Manitoba.
The numbers of walkers are unusual for the province. Canadian officials believe the upsurge is due to tough talk about refugees used by President Donald Trump in the 2016 election.
The three men in the homeless shelter weren't worried specifically about Trump, or promises to step up deportations of illegal immigrants. They'd just run afoul of a system that rejected their attempts to seek asylum, and they wanted out.
Owsu doesn't waste words when he tells of how he came to be in the U.S.
"I won't lie to you—I jumped the wall," he said, adding that his last stop before the U.S. had been Tijuana, Mexico.
All three had started out south of that wall.
Dumfeh came the farthest to get to Winnipeg, beginning his northward journey in 2016 from the South American nation of Peru. Agure, the second-farthest, made his landing in Brazil. Owsu said he stowed away on a ship in a Ghanaian port that was bound for Mexico.
Once in the new world, the men joined a stream of fellow travelers heading north. Dumfeh says he moved from country to country, passing through Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala. He says his belonging were stolen at various points by bandits and police alike as he crossed borders that waved him along, knowing his final destination lay far to the north.
The last crossing into Canada had been dangerous. Cold, dark, bleak—other travelers who had attempted to walk the border had lost appendages to the cold. At least one woman had lost her life, perishing from the cold, her body found in a ditch.
But for the three men, passing into the U.S. had come with its own perils. All were jailed for illegal immigration.
Dumfeh gets emotional as he discusses that part of his experience. He said he was held for more than 10 months in a detention facility in southern California, an unexpected development for a man who believed his claim to asylum would be met with a different sort of welcome.
"Whatever is happening, you have to keep it to yourself," he said. "In America, they treated me like I was nothing."
Dumfeh said he tried unsuccessfully to advance his refugee claim while in prison. When the first application failed, he said he appealed and, again, found only failure.
"They told me I'd go back to jail or get deported," Dumfeh said. With neither option sounding tolerable, he decided to make a try at Canada.
The story is much the same for his compatriots at the Booth Center. Agure said he was held for months at a detention center in Ohio before being faced with the same choice as Dumfeh. Owsu didn't specify where he was detained, but said he'd also been held before drifting to Minnesota, where he had a friend from the Ghanaian community.
In time, those two also picked the third route, the one that led north.
Grand Forks made an appearance on all their itineraries. The men said the city in the Red River Valley was their last staging point before meeting the border.
It was there that they hailed taxis to ferry them north. They composed themselves for the last time on U.S. soil at a nondescript location outside Pembina, N.D., before making the trek across the border.
Were they afraid? Agure laughs when the question is asked.
Of course he was, he says. It was about midnight, he was alone and he was trudging through snow almost up to his knees.
"I didn't know where I was," he said, "and you get lost in the dark."
He gestures to the clothes he's wearing in the Booth Center—long cargo pants and a hooded sweatshirt with neon-pink-and-green accents. To fight the cold, he says he layered up over those clothes with two more pairs of jeans, another sweatshirt and a jacket over the top.
He had a hat and gloves, he says, and boots too, but he's pointing to the Nike sneakers on his feet. He says these are his "boots."
Owsu is casual when describing his own walk, conducted under similar circumstances as his friend's. "If I died, I died," he said. He'd accepted that before setting out.
But like most who cross the border on foot, he emerged on the Canadian side, as did his friends. There, they were were met by the locals.
Dumfeh's assistance came with a motorist. He'd made it to a roadway and was following the pavement when a vehicle approached. He was wary of the driver, not knowing if he had in fact made it to Canada or if he was still on U.S. soil, about to be detained again.
Luckily for Dumfeh, it was the former. He describes the man as a "good Samaritan" who took him to the nearest border portal. On the Canadian side, that's in Emerson, Manitoba, a small town directly north of Pembina.
All three men say they found a warmer welcome there than when they walked into the U.S.
Coming out of the cold as they were, that's a literal statement for them—they say they were given a hot meal and a chance to shake off the elements. They were soon heading even farther north on the road to Winnipeg.
Until early last winter, the Manitoba government maintained a spillover shelter in the border town of Gretna to accommodate the surge of migrants who pushed north after the 2016 U.S. election. Carolyn Ryan, executive director of Housing Manitoba, said the 60-bed facility was a province-owned residence center that once served as housing for the local elderly but had been closed for some time until it was repurposed for asylum claimants.
By the time the surge had passed, the Gretna center had served 430 total people and, at the height of the wave, Ryan said border workers were seeing 40-50 new people crossing each week. However, the flow steadily slowed to a trickle and, by Nov. 30, Manitoba Housing once again shuttered the border facility.
"By that point the numbers had steadily declined over the fall and we determined that we could meet the needs just in the Winnipeg system," Ryan said, explaining that intakes were down to a slim weekly handful of people making the crossing.
People are still choosing to walk the border as Dumfeh, Agure and Owsu did. But with fewer numbers, some of the strain has been taken off a system that weathered an unusual spike in claims for asylum.
The men from Ghana had either not yet started or were in the earliest stages of officially filing for refugee status in Canada. None of them was worried about the process though, and all report feeling at home in Canada, where they're eligible to receive the same social benefits as native-born residents while their cases are processed by the federal government.
They say they're eager to start working. Agure and Dumfeh say they were tailors back in Ghana, and Owsu, who stands tall over his countrymen, wants to get a job in construction—he says work goes better when he can build up a sweat.
Their cases still need to be processed, and their futures in Canada aren't guaranteed. But for now, they say they're just relieved to find a place where they feel they can settle in.
"I hope something good comes of this," Dumfeh said. "Now we just need to see what the Lord does.