Lights along the highway from farmers’ fields in Emerson, Manitoba, west of the border.

The new underground railroad

More and more refugees are making a dangerous trek north to Canada to escape a harsh new U.S. regime—risking life and limb

By Jason Markusoff • Photographs by Nick Iwanyshyn

The taxi stopped at the side of the I-29 interstate after cruising north for about an hour. Their $400 in the cabbie’s pocket, he dropped off Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal a two-minute drive short of the North Dakota-Manitoba line. The driver pointed the men toward a darkened prairie field and a row of red blinking lights, wind turbines in the distance. Walk toward those lights, and they could grasp freedom.

“We didn’t feel any sign, but we could feel we are in Canada, because of the cold—very, very intense,” Mohammed recalls. By this point, they were a couple of hours into their trek through field and brush, unsure exactly where to stop. It was Christmas Eve, and fields outside Emerson, Man., were smothered in waist-high snow.

That “Canada” moment Mohammed recalls was a nasty wind gust that overwhelmed these underdressed African migrants, whipping off their flimsy gloves and Mohammed’s ballcap. By the time they wanted to dial 911 for police to retrieve them from the Manitoba roadside, their hands were frozen claws unable to grip a phone.

Razak Iyal in his room at Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg, January 25, 2017.

A trucker eventually rescued them, and a month later they were on a new, safer road, toward possible refugee status in Canada. But their frostbitten fingers are gone. Iyal has one thumb and a half-thumb left. Mohammed has nothing. As the 24-year-old former soccer player lies in his Winnipeg hospital bed a week after the amputation, the ends of his bandaged hands are left open to reveal the skin graft stapled over them to cover the wound. After recalling the extreme burning sensation of that night, the fear he might have died, he can’t stop staring at them in disbelief. “Look at my hands. Look, look,” Mohammed says, cheeks dripping with tears he cannot wipe away.

Seidu Mohammed, a 24-year-old who fled Ghana, had his fingers amputated earlier in the week.

The duo’s frostbite was a tragic cap to a surprisingly busy year for unanticipated refugees sneaking into Canada via Emerson. The RCMP intercepted 470 refugee claimants crossing near the border post last year—more than in the three previous years combined. They’re intercepted rather than “caught” because they want the police to bring them to the Canada Customs office to make their refugee claims, something current rules don’t let them do by coming in Canada’s front door.

They’re seeking refuge to the north because they fear deportation under the tough U.S. asylum system that existed before Donald Trump—and more and more these days, they’re not even trying their chances in the harsher new regime. “When I got to Canada, I felt so happy. I escaped from Donald Trump,” says Mouna, a Djiboutian who walked across the border three weeks after the U.S. election. The Ghanaian pair’s widely reported frostbite has proven no horror-story deterrent for those desperately seeking safety and freedom. Thirty-nine more arrived to Winnipeg’s largest refugee centre for help in frigid January, including eight on the Monday after the new U.S. President’s refugee and travel ban.

Evidence of frostbite on the feet of Seidu Mohammed.

Maclean’s spoke with more than a dozen refugees of various nationalities who have made this cross-border trip, to better understand what their Canadian supporters call the new underground railroad—a largely informal and hush-hush network of word-of-mouth advisers, drivers and reportedly some smugglers. But sometimes it’s as simple as a couple of shivering migrants guided by the blinking northern lights cast by those wind turbines.

The routes they take are impossibly dark, through scrub brush, mud, snow and water, fuelled by fear of getting caught and turned back south. But after fleeing from beatings and risk of death back home, and long journeys often of detention and other perilous pathways, the entry to Canada is just their last mile of hell.

Visual illustration created by Nick Iwanyshyn

In the college town of Grand Forks, N.D., Osaa Ahmed would not have to hide his homosexuality like he had to in Ghana. The last full day he spent in his home country was the night somebody spotted him kissing a boyfriend in a parked car, then followed Ahmed home and beat him with an iron cable and cut glass. He fled to Togo, then to Ecuador, a country with no visa requirement for Ghanaians. Unable to cope for long without knowledge of Spanish, he ran out his 90-day tourist visa and started a tour of buses and jungles and jails through South America and Central America, to seek asylum at the Texas border. He was bounced from a Texas detention centre, where he was shackled, to a Pennsylvania prison, where he was mixed in with criminal inmates. He never got money for a lawyer, and the judge Ahmed faced alone rejected his asylum claim, which U.S. immigration statistics show happened in 57 per cent of cases last year, the highest rate in more than a decade.

Which is why Ahmed wound up in late November at a bus terminal in downtown Grand Forks, a final brief juncture for most Emerson border crossers, including Iyal and Mohammed (who says he was also fleeing persecution for being gay and Muslim). It was head to Canada or eventually face U.S. deportation to Ghana. “I’m running away from something I know will happen immediately. If I come here, maybe I stand a chance to get my asylum,” Ahmed says. Along with a fellow backpack-toting Ghanaian he’d met on the Jefferson Lines route from Minneapolis to Grand Forks, Ahmed hailed an Uber driver willing to help for $500. They were let off at the same roadside, instructed to stumble in the dark toward those blinking lights, and they wandered north-ish until 5 a.m. the next day, finding out from a small-town hotel staffer they were indeed in Canada. On Feb. 2, Ahmed heard that he had officially been granted protection in Canada.

The bus station in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Refugees, many of them by this point experienced border crossers—having started trekking from Brazil or Ecuador—take various routes to avoid detection through the fields and trees on the east side of Emerson, a town of 600 people. Some will walk through the Red River valley—or the river itself, when it’s low. Locals are used to seeing muddy, tired men and women with pant legs caked in mud and clay; sometimes, they’ll sleep in the wooden vestibule of the town’s Chinese restaurant, or on a park bench. One migrant told Maclean’s he walked overnight to a coffee shop in the next town, 15 km north.

Fathi Ismail walked another 80 km, all the way to Winnipeg, he says. He was 16 at the time, a Somalian whose diplomat father’s death in Saudi Arabia left 11 children orphaned. He’s brought his younger siblings over as sponsored refugees, is finishing his high school courses and wants to become a mechanical engineer. Ismail still cannot forget the Winnipeg immigration officers who brought him warm clothes and halal food. “In Saudi Arabia, they will shoot you at the border.”

Heading toward Canada from Pembina, North Dakota, where refugees get dropped off by cab drivers from Grand Forks, North Dakota.

Ismail and others can’t claim refugee status at the border post; they’d get turned away under the Safe Third Country Agreement. The 2004 pact prevents a migrant arriving via the United States to seek asylum in Canada, and vice-versa. The agreement was meant to prevent so-called “asylum shopping” and limit pressures on Canada’s immigration system. Critics argue it is discriminatory against those who may get approved under Canadian refugee hearing rules but rejected under more stringent U.S. conditions; after Trump’s ban, the NDP joined calls to stop deeming our neighbour a “safe third country.”

This growing workaround is the other problem—it doesn’t prevent, and effectively encourages, border crossing outside the legal checkpoints, as the United Nations Refugee Convention of 1951 bars countries from penalizing refugee claimants who enter a territory without visa or authorization.

Injuries like Mohammed’s and Iyal’s frostbite have also made advocates bring up the dangers. “If you changed it, less refugee claimants would be putting their lives at risk, because they’d be able to come to the port of entry instead of the field,” says Bashir Khan, a Winnipeg immigration lawyer who’s handled several cases.

At Kai Hua Chinese Restaurant—one of the closest buildings to the border, in Emerson, Man.—refugees can often be found escaping the elements.

In past years, the overwhelming majority of travellers who walked around the Emerson crossing were refugees from Somalia, a country shredded by a quarter-century of civil war and more recently the violent jihadist group al-Shabaab. America’s largest Somali community is in the Minneapolis area, 630 km from the Manitoba border. Somali claimants are still the most common Emerson crossers, at 251 of 430 migrants who arrived from last April to December, but people from other African nationalities have cottoned on to this illicit route as well, according to figures from the Canadian Border Services Agency. In that same period there were 46 Eritreans, 46 Djiboutians and 27 from Ghana—up from zero Ghanaians in the prior two years.

In separate interviews with five Ghanaians who walked in the fields west of Emerson for a last chance in Canada, nobody spoke of coordination or a common source of advice on the journey. Each claimant maintains they knew that Canada was the logical next stop after asylum denials in America, and they researched to find out how to reach Winnipeg in the province nicknamed “Friendly Manitoba.” From the bus depot in Grand Forks, the cabbies or drivers knew the route; in some cases, they’d approached the Africans, assuming they wanted to go someplace else with their backpacks. The fees were all in the $200 range to get to Pembina, N.D., the last gas-station exit before the border.

The eastern border of Emerson, Manitoba and Noyes, Minnesota.

Mouna, the Djiboutian, was fleeing a violent forced marriage (she wouldn’t give her last name). She said one of the Somalis she befriended in Minneapolis gave her the number of another woman who could help her reach Canada. That woman never gave Mouna her name, but gave her instructions to reach Grand Forks. When she and the four other Africans she travelled with needed a cab from there, the anonymous woman played English-Somali interpreter for the taxi driver and helped him relay his $50-per-passenger charge. “He told us: ‘There is Canada. You can walk,’ ” she says.

Anisa Husein, 20, and Lyann Mohammed, 19, got help from the gruff, mysterious smuggler who had brought them from Somalia to Mexico and into the United States for US$10,000, and determined after three days Stateside they needed to sneak across one last border. He arranged the cab ride north last August. They were scared as they traversed muddy fields, the likely terminus of their escape from al-Shabaab: “It was our first time travelling. We didn’t know where we were going,” Lyann Mohammed says.

Refugees Mouna and Kowsar, who asked not to be identified, at Welcome Place in Winnipeg.

Officials with refugee support groups in Minneapolis and North Dakota say they don’t know how it works, though one network of churches will provide sanctuary for the targeted and vulnerable. Immigration lawyers in Minnesota and southern California said in interviews they’ve had asylum-seeking clients disappear then contact them from Canada. “But they did not tell me how they got there, and I did not ask,” says Michelle McKenzie, deputy director with the Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis. She cites the 1980s sanctuary program, when churches sheltered Salvadorans and Guatemalans fleeing war and sometimes helped them reach Canada through what was called the “overground railroad.” “Today’s version of this doesn’t surprise me, that people who are fleeing persecution, trauma and torture are looking for safety. And those who are not being granted asylum are continuing on and looking for the next place of safety. That’s what refugees do,” McKenzie says.

There was already so much to deplore about the asylum system before this year, McKenzie says: lengthy detentions, lack of legal aid for claimants, high rejection rates by an overburdened staff of judges. Then came Trump, who spoke of “disaster” during a late-campaign visit to Minnesota: “Large numbers of Somali refugees coming into your state, without your knowledge, without your support or approval … you’ve suffered enough in Minnesota,” he said, citing one knife attack at a mall, which ISIS claimed, perpetrated by a young man whose family moved him to the United States at age two.

Then came Trump’s executive order on Jan. 27. Somalis and citizens of six other Muslim-majority countries are banned from entering the country for at least 90 days. The asylum and refugee systems are frozen. Other executive orders aimed at undocumented immigrants via Mexico will beef up enforcement and detention, and expedite deportations. The case-by-case system was bad enough. Now it’s systematically a shut door.

Looking south from farmers’ fields in Emerson, Manitoba, west of the border, known to be the most popular route for refugees on foot.

The pace of this exodus to Canada spiked in October and November, before Trump became President—58 and 60 migrants skirted the border by Emerson in those respective months, almost what authorities used to get in a full year. The crossers tend to increase in spring. But at Welcome Place, the Winnipeg agency mandated to aid claimants with paperwork and support, staff are already pushed to the limit. They rely on donations for these services, and generosity isn’t so forthcoming when there’s chatter of “illegal” border crossings, executive director Rita Chahal says.

But it’s not happening only in Manitoba. At various spots along the Quebec-Vermont border, 1,280 claimants came between last April and Jan. 8—triple the numbers of the previous year. There are African migrants crossing there, as well as Francophones from the Middle East. While most Emerson migrants are Winnipeg-bound, Quebec claimants are more likely to spread out farther, to make homes and seek refugee hearings in Montreal, Quebec City and Ontario cities, says Janet Dench of the Montreal-based Canadian Council of Refugees. There’s the occasional case in the Niagara region of somebody trying to sneak across the rail bridge from New York, but a steadily growing number enter daily through the border posts, because claimants can bypass the U.S.-Canada third-country agreement if a close relative is already in Canada. There were 62 per cent more of those safer border-crossers last year than in 2015. Advocates expect more will get in however they can as the Trumpian atmosphere remains toxic for safe-harbour seekers. “The U.S. is becoming a transit country, not a destination country,” said Ghezae Hagos, a paralegal and counsellor at Welcome Place. “That to me is very worrisome for Canada, because we have to be prepared see more and more people who don’t even bother to make a refugee claim there.”

Welcome Place.

May Boehlig would keep helping out Emerson migrants if she could, but she’s nursing a broken foot after falling from a ladder. The 73-year-old former groundskeeper runs the town park’s canteen in the summer—local kids call her “Grandma Cake and Ice Cream,” she says—and until her accident, Boehlig says she regularly drove refugee claimants from Emerson to refugee centres in Winnipeg, an offshoot of her volunteer work shuttling cancer patients to area hospitals. She’ll retrieve them from the border office or local motel and charge them gas money. One Somali woman who walked across the border with her six-year-old son stands out to her; Boehlig gave the boy a quilt she’d sewn, for warmth and a welcome gift. “If someone’s in need, what are you going to do?” she says. “I wonder how Donald Trump’s going to treat them. They’ll get no chance, for life.”

Emerson local May Boehlig is often the first to help refugees once they cross into Canada.

Small-town southern Manitoba has shown its generosity elsewhere; church groups in nearby Altona sponsored 34 Syrian refugees. Farmers near the border will find the walkers several kilometres west of Emerson, as some migrants follow a different flashing beacon—a 130-storey TV tower that blinks white at North Dakota’s edge. From a distance the first time, Pete Friesen of Halbstadt thought it was cattle on the road; he let the four muddy Somalis into his van and brought them to the police office. That summer, he found two men resting by trees outside his house. He brought them water and a snack. “They were very kind and very gracious for what we had done for them,” Friesen says. His neighbour, Howard Friesen (no relation) was reading a daily scripture about being somebody’s sheltering palm tree when he spotted a migrant in his field. He brought him inside, fed him coffee, six eggs and six toast slices; the man showed him stab scars, told him of his murdered father in Somalia. “Most people in this community, we’re all for helping people,” Howard says. But he’s worried about how much taxpayer support the refugees get—health care coverage, housing subsidies. “Get them trained in language and let them learn some skills—they can’t just come here and exist. They have to contribute,” he says. Some do. Within months of arriving via Somalia and North Dakota and being approved as a refugee, Abdi Nur, 43, got a well-paying job on northern Manitoba hydro construction projects. “I’m happy to be a taxpayer myself,” he says. Hopefully, he adds, he can sponsor his wife and children to join him and share in Canadian prosperity and welcome.

Abdi Nur, in downtown Winnipeg.

Not everyone gets the chance Nur received. In 2015, Immigration and Refugee Board members approved 65 per cent of all new refugee claims, according to statistics compiled by Sean Rehaag of Osgoode Law School. The rate was slightly lower for Somalians, but only 43 per cent for Ghanaian claims.

Maclean’s was permitted to sit in on the Winnipeg hearing of Abdul (not his real name), a tailor who claims the Muslim group in his Ghana neighbourhood beat him brutally for disagreeing that homosexuals should be tortured and driven out. The board member, appearing via videoconference from Calgary, did not ask Abdul about the way he evaded border guards to reach Manitoba—he focused on discrepancies in the man’s timeline, and whether he’d be safe from anti-gay discrimination in a city far from that neighbourhood group. There were issues with the translation, so halfway through Abdul switched to broken English. “I cannot stay quiet [about gays], because I work with them in my shop,” he calmly told the screen. Khan, his lawyer, insisted they shouldn’t send him home and expect him to be silent on his beliefs. “He’s going to be accused of being one of them. He would be meted out a similar punishment,” Khan said.

The refugee adjudicator promised a decision via mail within weeks. Abdul believes his chances are good of being accepted and avoiding deportation. “Inshallah—all of this I leave to God,” he tells Maclean’s. At least he had a lawyer beside him, unlike during his U.S. asylum rejection.

Bashir Khan, Winnipeg immigration lawyer, in downtown Winnipeg.

In late March, Mohammed and Iyal will get their chances to plead for recognition as refugees. They’re also both hoping their hands will heal, and that they can get prosthetic fingers. “I’m feeling like the fingers are still there,” says Iyal, newly released into a hotel-style private hospital room. “Sometimes when I’m sleeping, in the middle of the night, I feel the pain.”

In coming weeks and months, many others will retrace his steps, willing to tolerate or risk whatever weather or other dangers, for one last chance at freedom that seems increasingly unlikely in Trump’s America. A Canadian trucker helped rescue Iyal and Mohammed from death in the snow. A Canadian doctor had to amputate their fingers, and a lawyer here will help plead their case.

Maybe, Iyal says, his wife can immigrate here too to take care of him. First things first, though. “I thank the people of Canada, and I wish to be one of them.”

Correction: Subsequent to the publishing of this story, the Canadian Border Services Agency sent Maclean’s revised statistics regarding the number of refugee claimants the RCMP intercepted near the Emerson border crossing. The federal agency blamed a “clerical error” for the original figures shared with Maclean’s.

Reporter: Jason Markusoff
Photographer: Nick Iwanyshyn
Editors: Alison Uncles, Colin Campbell
Art director: Stephen Gregory

Director of Photography: Liz Sullivan
Digital producers: Adrian Lee and Nick Taylor-Vaisey
Published: February 3, 2017
Updated: February 7, 2017.