February 9, 2017

'Everything was hurting so bad'

The biting cold, the tired limbs, the feelings of despair — all those memories came flooding back to Habib Zahori as he read the story of two Ghanaian men who recently risked their lives to sneak into Canada.

They had trudged for hours through waist-deep snowfields in -18 C temperatures until they reached an unguarded border. Cold and disoriented, they managed to slip across, but it was several hours before they were able to flag down a truck driver, who called 911.

Both ended up losing fingers due to severe frostbite. According to one of the men, if it hadn’t been for that driver, “we would have died in that snow.”

Zahori knows that sense of desperation. Just over a year ago, he made a similarly treacherous winter journey through the woods and across the border — partly by foot, partly by bicycle.

“My fingers had gone numb,” Zahori recalls. “My nose, my cheeks, my lips, my entire face — everything had gone numb. And my thighs and knees, everything was hurting so bad. And I was tired, and I was thirsty.”

What makes these dramatic tales so strange is that these men weren’t coming from a country ravaged by war, civil strife, famine or disease.

They were fleeing the United States.

Zahori and the others had first landed there after escaping troubles in their home countries. But they ended up illegally crossing the world’s largest undefended border in the hopes that Canada would provide the refuge they sought.

These dangerous hikes into Canada seem to be spiking.

Some may find that a peculiar scenario – refugee claimants fleeing a country with one of the highest standards of living in the world and one that likes to cast itself as a beacon of freedom.

But concerns about the political climate and just how welcoming the U.S. will be to refugees under the Trump administration has prompted many to consider going north — even if it means illegally.

And these dangerous hikes into Canada seem to be spiking, at least in some parts of the border.

The sparsely populated stretch of the border that separates the town of Emerson, Man., and its surroundings from neighbouring North Dakota has become a magnet for those seeking to claim refugee status and may be a gauge of the size of the problem. In recent weeks, dozens more have crossed the porous border.

According to figures provided by the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA), in the last three years, Emerson has seen a fivefold increase in illegal crossings by refugees – from 68 in 2013 to more than 400 between April and December 2016.

On the West Coast, the number of crossings has doubled, and in Quebec, it has more than quadrupled.

Many asylum seekers choose the U.S. over Canada — initially, at least — because there are more direct flights, and presumably because of its historical reputation as a place of refuge.

'With my Muslim name, coming from a Muslim country, I didn’t want to get into any type of problems with Americans.'

Some people have straightforward reasons for then wanting to get into Canada – their refugee applications have been denied in the U.S., and they see the neighbour to the north as their last hope. 

Others fear the current political climate stateside. 

“With my Muslim name, coming from a Muslim country, I didn’t want to get into any type of problems with Americans,” says Zahori.

With President Trump having recently signed an executive order that bans refugees from entering the country for four months, bans Syrians indefinitely and blocks travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, those concerns — and the number of people seeking sanctuary in Canada — are only likely to increase.

Habib's story

Zahori, who is 32, was born and raised in Kabul, Afghanistan, where he earned an undergraduate degree in medicine. Doctors there earn very little, so in 2009, Zahori decided to become an interpreter for foreign journalists stationed there during the war that followed the 2001 U.S. invasion.

He worked with reporters for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the BBC and the Washington Post and eventually became a freelance journalist reporting on the war himself for some of those outlets.

Habib Zahori at his home in Ottawa. (Marc Robichaud/CBC)

The job came with risks. Zahori received multiple threats from people within the Afghan government unhappy with his stories about corruption, as well as from members of the Taliban, who still control many parts of the country.

Taking advantage of his journalistic experience, Zahori applied for and received a two-year Fulbright Scholarship to complete a master’s degree in international relations at the University of Denver.

At the end of the program, before he was set to head back to Kabul, Zahori took a trip to different parts of the U.S. to visit friends and say goodbye. While in Alexandria, Va., he learned from relatives back home that his life might be in danger if he returned.

Due in part to Zahori’s work as a journalist, members of his family had run into a “security problem.” Then there was the fact that his father owned a small construction company that did work for the Afghan government and Western coalition forces.

“In a country like Afghanistan, people don’t need a legitimate reason to threaten you or to kill you,” Zahori says. “All they need is to find out you are somehow associated with foreigners.”

He realized he couldn’t go back.

But he wasn’t convinced he could stay in the U.S., either.

'I prefer to get into trouble with Canadian law enforcement agencies rather than with Americans.'

After nearly two years in Denver, and with his visa set to expire, Zahori made a choice. Rather than attempt to claim refugee status in the U.S. — an option he admits he mistakenly believed was not available to him — he decided to flee to Canada.

“I can’t go back home, my visa is running out and I’m going to get in trouble,” Zahori remembers thinking. “But I prefer to get into trouble with Canadian law enforcement agencies rather than with Americans.”

He admits his knowledge of Canada and its culture was quite limited. He had heard of Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa and Toronto but knew little else about the country.

“The other things I knew were Justin Bieber, Justin Trudeau and I really liked Bryan Adams’s music. I used to listen to Bryan Adams growing up.”

And so Zahori began to plot his trip north.

From Alexandria, he travelled to Brooklyn, N.Y., to stay with a journalist friend he had met back in Afghanistan. He had heard from other Afghans in New York that it was possible to hire smugglers to take you across the border from Buffalo, but he never managed to verify that.

“To tell you the truth, I couldn’t find those people,” he says.

Zahori admits he had a visceral fear of running under cover of darkness by himself, which stirred up some Canadian-themed nightmares.

“I didn’t want to walk into the woods and get eaten by a bear or something.”

While talking about his planned journey in Brooklyn one night, Zahori’s friend mentioned the massive length of the Canadian-U.S border.

That stuck with him.

“I just Googled the U.S.-Canada border. And I looked at this border, this long border, and I was like, ‘I can cross anywhere, but I should find a place that’s closer to a city,’” Zahori says.

He settled on an area of Maine that borders New Brunswick near the town of Woodstock. “I thought there would be less security, less monitoring, on that part of the border,” he says.

He then did some more online research. From downtown Woodstock, he figured he would catch a bus to Montreal and eventually make his way to Toronto, where he assumed people in the Afghan community would help him get to an immigration office.

It seemed like a good plan.

'The reason I decided to get a bicycle is I didn’t want to get arrested on the border.'

Another friend agreed to drive Zahori to the Canadian border, and so on Jan. 3, 2016, they set out from Brooklyn.

Zahori packed light: a small bag containing a Kindle e-book, some socks, two to three T-shirts, some underwear, a GPS and two paperback novels, Moby Dick and his favourite, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment.

But he believed he needed one more item to improve his odds of success. As he and his friend drove into Boston, they decided to stop at another friend’s place so he could pick up a used bicycle.

“The reason I decided to get a bicycle is I didn’t want to get arrested on the border — I wanted to get as deep inside of Canada as I could,” he says. “I knew if someone arrested me on the border, they’d deport me back into the U.S., and I’d end up in jail.”

Zahori says he can’t remember the Maine border town he and his friend ended up driving to — it was Houlton — but as they neared the official crossing point, they took a right and parked the car in an area where Zahori wouldn’t be spotted.

After saying goodbye to his friend, Zahori got on the bike and started pedalling toward a wooded area. When he reached the forest, he got off the bike and began walking in the knee-high snow to the border, bicycle still in tow.

During this ordeal, Zahori thought back to a book he had read while in Afghanistan: Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, about adventurer Christopher McCandless, who in the 1990s hitchhiked through the U.S. up to Alaska, where he eventually died. (To this date, there is debate about whether it was starvation or a poisonous plant that ultimately killed him.)

“It made me so scared of the woods, snow and the wild in general,” says Zahori. “I remember being filled with terror as I walked through those woods, thinking that I might die somewhere like Christopher.”

Zahori’s walk to the border was relatively short, but it was snowing and sub-zero temperature. He was wearing a winter jacket, boots, gloves, a scarf and a woolly hat.

All of that did little to keep him warm.

He had experienced cold in Afghanistan. He had experienced cold in Denver. But he admits, “I had never felt the Canadian cold in my life. It was so cold.”

As Zahori emerged from the woods, he came across two parallel roads. He got on one of them and just started biking.

He had made it into Canada.

Locations of recent illegal border crossings

Locations of recent illegal border crossings


He pedalled hard along the highway, searching for small roads he had mapped out on Google that could take him to the Irving Oil gas station in Woodstock where he hoped to catch the bus to Montreal.

But these smaller roads were blanketed with snow, making travel on them impossible. To complicate matters, his GPS wasn’t working. He decided to just keep biking.

“Eventually, I will reach a city and I will make a decision from there,” he remembers thinking.

At one point, Zahori came upon a man driving a snowplow who gave him directions on how to get to Woodstock. The driver told him how to reach the highway, clearly not meant for bicycles, particularly on a snowy cold day, and Zahori continued pedalling.

“All these people that were driving on the highway, they would just slow down, they would look at me and they would be like, ‘Who the hell is this crazy guy?’”

He passed by one farmhouse where a family stood outside watching him. Six or seven dogs began to bark at him and give chase. Zahori managed to outpace them, but the effort exhausted him. 

“To tell you the truth, after that chase, I was so tired and I was so cold, and I remember hoping that a police officer would show up and arrest me, just take me somewhere,” he says. 

Rather than feeling humiliated, Zahori was relieved.

Minutes later, Zahori got his wish, when two local police officers appeared from the opposite direction. He suspects they might have been tipped off by a family he noticed had been watching him from their porch.

The officers stopped about 40 metres in front of Zahori before they waved him over. 

“One of them had his hands on his gun, and I’ve seen all these police shootings in the U.S., and I was [thinking], ‘Oh my God, OK, OK, OK,’ and I just slowed down the bicycle.”

One officer approached Zahori and, without asking any questions, told him he was under arrest for crossing the border illegally. They searched him, emptied his pockets, looked in his bag and handcuffed his hands behind his back. 

Rather than feeling humiliated, Zahori was relieved.

“One of the officers said, ‘Sorry, we can’t take your bicycle. We have to throw it away here.’ And I was like, ‘Dude, you’re so nice to me, just throw it away. I don’t care.’”

Once in the car, they took him to a detention centre in Woodstock, where his name was run through a security database and officers assured him he wasn’t considered a security threat.

Zahori said he was later taken to a nearby immigration office where he answered more questions, was fingerprinted, signed a series of forms and was given a date for his refugee claim hearing.

His bizarre, dangerous journey was over.

'The journey was worth it'

Two months after that unforgettable day, Zahori was granted refugee status. Just recently, he learned that he will soon be granted permanent residency.

His tale illustrates the risks some are willing to take in an attempt to find sanctuary in Canada.

Heather Mantle, director of the Matthew House refugee centre in Windsor, Ont., says that over the years, people have hidden in boxcars, held on to trains or made the “very, very dangerous” walk through railway tunnels at crossings between the U.S. and Canada.

One refugee, she says, swam across the Detroit River to Windsor.

“It just shows you the desperation of people,” she says.

Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal, the two Ghanaians who ended up in Emerson, Man., originally fled to the U.S. because they said they feared their homosexuality was a threat to their safety back home.

But late last year, they were denied asylum and faced deportation. On Christmas Eve, they walked three hours to cross the border from North Dakota to Manitoba and spent several more hours on the highway until they were picked up by a passing truck driver.

Iyal ended up losing all his fingers while Mohammed lost his fingers, his thumbs and several toes.

They’re now in a Winnipeg hostel recovering from the surgeries on their frostbitten limbs and waiting for their refugee claims to be heard.

Despite the terrible toll on their bodies, Mohammed told the CBC “the journey was worth it.”

“I’m happy I’m here,” he said. “To go back, I lose my life.”

They are part of a growing trend.

According to the Canadian Border Services Agency, the number of refugee claims made at land border crossings — which includes legal and illegal crossings — has more than doubled since 2014. There were 3,747 refugee claims in 2014, 4,316 in 2015 and 7,022 in 2016.

Zahori never attempted to claim refugee status in the U.S., but his decision to leave for Canada was based, in part, on the rhetoric coming out of Donald Trump’s campaign during the Republican primaries in late 2015 and early 2016.

“The kind of Islamophobia and anti-immigrant phobia he was spewing everywhere … it was scary, to tell you the truth,” says Zahori.

Lorne Waldman, a Toronto immigration lawyer, says he has heard anecdotally from people in precarious situations who fear that a Trump presidency will make it difficult for them to stay in the U.S.

It would seem much simpler for asylum seekers to present themselves at a port of entry or crossing at any Canada-U.S. official border point and simply ask for asylum.

The issue, however, is that under the Canada-U.S. Safe Third Country Agreement, which came into effect in 2004, a person must make their refugee claim in the first safe country they arrive in.

Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council For Refugees, says Canada had been trying to broker the agreement for years to stem the flow of refugees from the U.S. It wasn’t until after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, when the U.S. sought Canada’s co-operation with border security issues, that Washington acquiesced.

Before the agreement was put in place, there was a system that allowed those seeking refugee status to present themselves at the border and be processed, Dench says.

'It’s not a matter of shopping for the country that you want.'

In signing the agreement in 2002, then-deputy prime minister John Manley said the two countries were eliminating “the practice of asylum shopping by refugee applicants.”

“It’s not a matter of shopping for the country that you want; it’s a matter of escaping the oppression that you face,” Manley said at the time, according to a report in the Globe and Mail.

As a result, those who first arrive in the U.S. but show up at the border seeking to come into Canada and make a refugee claim will likely be turned back. (There are a few exceptions — for example, if the claimant has a family member in Canada.)

Immigration lawyers and refugee advocates have opposed the agreement from the beginning, saying it forces those seeking refugee status to take dangerous risks.

“Most of the time, you’re going to be turned around, and [they will] say, ‘Sorry, you cannot claim in Canada, you have to claim in the U.S.,” says Waldman. “So, that’s why people sneak across.”

Since Trump signed his temporary refugee ban executive order, those calls to amend the agreement have intensified. A group of more than 200 law professors have written a letter to Canadian Immigration Minister Ahmed Hussen asking him to suspend the Safe Third Country Agreement for up to three months, pending a review.

In their statement, the professors wrote, “Executive orders issued by President Trump demonstrate that the U.S. is not ‘safe’ for refugees.”

Hussen has indicated the Canadian government has no plans to revisit the agreement, saying, “All the parameters of that agreement are in place, and there is no chance that this will stop.”

Getting in at all costs

Crossing into Canada by evading official border points is illegal.

Section 18 (1) of the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act states that “every person seeking to enter Canada must appear for an examination to determine whether that person has a right to enter Canada or is or may become authorized to enter and remain in Canada.”

But here’s the rub: If a refugee does make it into Canada illegally, they are still entitled to claim refugee status. The way you came in has little bearing on your eligibility.

The person will be issued a conditional removal order, says Toronto-based refugee lawyer Raoul Boulakia.

“If they win the refugee claim, they can stay. If they lose, then they are deported,” Boulakia says.

The outside possibility of being allowed to stay is what ultimately spurs people to take great risks to get here. And those who use smugglers might be the biggest risk-takers of all.

In December, Dr. Paul Caulford, founder of the Canadian Centre for Refugee and Immigrant Health Care in Toronto, met a woman originally from Nigeria who showed up at his clinic with her four children.

She told Caulford that she and her kids — ranging in age from 18 months to eight — had been squeezed into a truck with no heat and no light and driven for 10 hours from New York to Toronto. (Caulford couldn’t provide the family’s name.)

The children had suffered frostbite, but theirs wasn’t as serious as their mother’s.

They were left stranded in a remote park in Toronto at around 3 a.m., with no idea where they were. They wore only light jackets and none of them had gloves. They bore the cold for three hours, waiting to be met by someone who would help them make a refugee claim.

The woman told Caulford that to stay warm, she huddled her 18-month-old under her coat, keeping her hand over the child’s face to ward off the bitter cold.

No one ever came, but a passing driver eventually stopped to give them a lift, which is how they made it to a refugee shelter and eventually to Caulford’s clinic.

The children had suffered frostbite, but theirs wasn’t as serious as their mother’s, whose hands were terribly swollen and hemorrhaging.

In the days after meeting her, Caulford said other Nigerian women and children arrived at his clinic, all with similar stories.

“The first one raised alarm bells, and it was after the second and third one, we sat around and thought, ‘What the hell’s going on?’” Caulford says.

He says the women all feared for their safety back in Nigeria, claiming they faced the threat of kidnappings, war and genital mutilation. So, they paid someone they referred to as “an agent” in the U.S. to ferry them across to Canada.

Image 26 2
Snow-covered Emerson, Man., has become a popular entry point for people wanting to cross illegally into Canada. (CBC)

Sneaking someone across the border for profit is considered smuggling under Canadian and international law. 

However, here, too, there’s a hitch. 

The Supreme Court of Canada has decided that if helping someone get into the country is done on humanitarian grounds, that should not be considered smuggling, says Boulakia. 

“If you were doing it genuinely to help them, that would be your defence. You would say, ‘Yes, I did this, it was illegal, but I have a valid excuse in law based on international humanitarian law and based on the Supreme Court decision,’” says Boulakia, who argued the case in 2015. “So, you could be found not guilty.”

Halifax-based immigration lawyer Lee Cohen, who represented Zahori, says smuggling isn’t necessarily a bad thing if it’s done with the right intent.

“The issue for me has never been about should or should you not smuggle,” Cohen says. “The issue for me has always been, why do you have to smuggle? And if you’re going to smuggle, do it safely.”

Indeed, Trump’s controversial announcement may have already inspired more people to make perilous journeys into Canada.

'I almost froze to death, and that has left me traumatized.'

The Manitoba Interfaith Immigration Council (MIIC) said that in the few months of the Trump presidency, the number of claimants it has seen already outnumbers the average for an entire year.

Trump signed the executive order on Jan. 27. On Monday, Jan. 30, the MIIC opened 10 new files for new refugee claimants, all of whom had crossed the border on foot.

One couple, who had fled their home country of Djibouti in the Horn of Africa out of fear of political persecution, said they abandoned their application for refugee status in the U.S. following Trump’s executive order.

“We saw what happened in the airports, and that’s why we… tried to cross the border,” said the husband, who did not want to be identified for fear it would put their families back home at risk.

It’s been just over a year since Zahori arrived in Canada.

Now living in Ottawa, he continues to do some work as a translator and is currently writing a novel about life in Afghanistan. Despite the positive outcome, he has mixed feelings about the perilous journey that brought him to Canada.

“If I had to do what I did on Jan. 3, 2016, again, I would not do it. I almost froze to death, and that has left me traumatized,” he says.

“My only advice to people who want to cross the U.S.-Canada border is to not do it, unless they are sure that they will make it.”