Border-crosser who lost fingers gets to stay

24-year-old bisexual professional soccer player from Ghana granted refugee status

WINNIPEG — Five months after nearly freezing to death on a treacherous walk across the Canada-U.S. border, and still learning to get along without the 10 fingers and thumbs he lost to frostbite, Seidu Mohammed is happy.

He gets to stay in Canada.

The Immigration and Refugee Board has granted Mohammed refugee status on the basis that the 24-year-old bisexual professional soccer player from Ghana would face persecution if returned to his home country.

“I feel so happy. I feel now that this country is my home now,” he said Thursday, sitting at the kitchen table in his home. With a bit of effort, he opened a binder and produced the written decision from the Immigration and Refugee Board.

“I want to do anything possible to contribute to this country because this country has done a lot to me that I didn’t expect. Ever since I came here, I’ve seen a lot of good people who give me courage and also support me.”

Mohammed fled Ghana to the United States in 2015. Like many asylum seekers from Africa, he first flew to Ecuador — where no visas are required — then made his way by bus through Central America and then to the U.S., where he spent several months in a detention centre.

His sought asylum on the basis that as a bisexual man, he would face serious physical harm if he had to return to Ghana. The United Nations office of the high commissioner on human rights, among other groups, has criticized Ghana’s government for criminalizing homosexuality and allowing gays and lesbians to be subject to discrimination and harassment.

Mohammed said his asylum claim in the U.S. was rejected because he was unable to gather supporting evidence from his home country while locked up in the detention centre. Phone calls overseas from the detention centre are expensive and applicants can burn through the money they have in a short call, he said.

“They didn’t give you a chance to let them know that you are in a difficult position,” he said.

“You can’t get enough evidence to show them … what you are facing.”

Released from custody pending deportation, Mohammed made it to North Dakota, took a cab to an area near the border at Emerson, Man. and, along with a fellow asylum seeker he met, walked seven hours in the dark as wind chill dipped to -30 C.

It was Dec. 24. The two men passed Emerson without realizing it and were eventually found by a trucker near Letellier, Man. — 14 kilometres to the north — nearly frozen and disoriented.

The men spent weeks in hospital. Mohammed’s fingers and thumbs were removed and his hands now resemble stumps. The man he crossed the border with is still waiting to learn his fate, he said.

The Immigration and Refugee Board ruling said Mohammed would face a “serious possibility of persecution” if he was returned to Ghana.

“The evidence demonstrates that sexual minorities face discrimination, hostility, violence, stigmatization, prosecution and imprisonment,” it says.

His lawyer, Bashir Khan, said Mohammed has shown a lot of determination — mentally and physically — to adapt to life without his fingers and thumbs.

“Mentally, he’s very strong,” Khan said.

“Physically, it’s of course very difficult to readjust and cope … so I think he has a lot of rehabilitation (ahead).”

Mohammed said he’s adjusting to every day life — he likes buttoned shirts, for example, but has to wear T-shirts and sweaters that don’t have buttons. The doors in the home where he is staying have adapters on them so they can be opened easily.

He has a goal in mind as his recovery continues — a return to soccer.

“My dream is to start coaching, or to start playing. That’s my dream now.”

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