After a Harrowing Flight from US, Refugees find Asylum in Canada

In News by MIIC

Razak Iyal, 35, center left, and Seidu Mohammed, 24, center right, volunteering at the Canadian Muslim Women’s Institute in Winnipeg. Credit Aaron Vincent Elkaim for The New York Times

WINNIPEG, Manitoba — There are many differences between the two Ghanaian refugees in Winnipeg, but the most significant comes down to a single thumb.

Razak Iyal and Seidu Mohammed became the public face of desperation among refugees in the United States after President Trump’s election. A trucker found them half-frozen north of the Canadian border on Christmas Eve. They had walked — sometimes waist deep in snow — across farm fields to avoid being deported from the United States. Their fingers were so severely frostbitten that all of them had to be amputated — with the exception of Mr. Iyal’s right thumb.

That single digit means he can fry up his own breakfast, pull on his clothes and pinch the knob of the washing machine to do his laundry. “That thumb I have left helps me a lot,” said Mr. Iyal, 35, a former appliance store owner from Accra, Ghana. “I thank God for it.”

Both men won permission to stay permanently in Canada. But while they are rebuilding their lives, their story has become a focus of sympathy and criticism among advocates in Canada, who say their fate shows that the United States is not fair or safe for refugees.

Some advocates argue that Canada should scrap its 13-year-old pact with the United States that requires asylum seekers to demand refuge in the first country of the two in which they arrive. After arriving in one country, refugees are not allowed to enter the other at an official border crossing, which creates a perverse incentive to sneak across the border and then seek asylum.

“We are forcing people to lose fingers and toes, making them go to such lengths to seek our protection,” said Efrat A. Arbel, an assistant law professor at the University of British Columbia.

Others say the story of Mr. Iyal and Mr. Mohammed is more an example of stupidity mixed with opportunism, pointing out that neither fled their country because of persecution.

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