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‘It was the happiest moment’: Asylum seekers who took risky Central American corridor cross into Canada

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Somali men fled their home country and travelled well-trodden migration route

Their journeys spanned 400 days, involved crossing 15 borders on three continents and cost them nearly $40,000.

But earlier this month, as Canadians celebrated the 150th anniversary of Confederation, the two Somali asylum seekers who embarked on those risky journeys reached their final goal.

Their stories are emblematic of new lengths some migrants fleeing violent hot spots are willing to take to reach Canada — wooed by the ruling Liberal government’s refugee rhetoric and drawn to a migration route through Central America that treats the United States as a country of transit rather than a destination.

Waiting for nightfall on July 2, Abdikadir Ahmed Omar and Guled Abdi Omar walked through the sprawling canola fields that blanket the U.S.-Canada border near Gretna, Man.

Crouching carefully to be hidden by the tall crops, the men walked for hours in the direction of the blinking lights of the wind turbines they had been told were a sure sign they had reached Canada.

“I was the one that dialed 911,” says Abdi Omar of the moment the two men believed they had crossed the border into Canada.

“But still, even when [the police] came, I was a little bit worried because the uniform is almost the same [as U.S. Border Patrol].”

But when the two men noticed a small Canadian flag on the sleeve of one of the officer’s uniforms, relief began to wash over them for the first time in more than a year.

‘I am a free man’

“It was the happiest moment. I am in Canada, and I am relaxed…. I am not being chased by the police in the United States, I am not being put into detention. I am a free man,” says Ahmed Omar.

“It was then I knew, thanks to God, that right now I am 100 per cent safe.”

CBC News first met Ahmed Omar, 30 and Abdi Omar, 27, in Mexico City in February, shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning refugee admissions to the United States from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Somalia.

At the time, they were living alongside dozens of other African migrants who had fled their home countries and had travelled a well-trodden migration route that snakes north from Brazil through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico.

It is a route that once led migrants to the U.S. But mounting anxiety in the Somali diaspora about an uptick in deportations coupled with concerns about a political climate increasingly hostile to Muslims mean many African migrants whose journeys would have once ended in diaspora hubs such as Minneapolis are choosing to continue to Canada.

Ahmed Omar fled Somalia in June 2016 after an attack on his home by the militant islamist group al-Shabaab. Abdi Omar left his home in the Dadaab refugee camp, in eastern Kenya, shortly after, when the same group attempted to forcefully recruit him.

Both men decided the Mediterranean Sea migration route to Europe, increasingly cut off in response to the overwhelming refugee crisis, was not an option. Both opted for flights to Brazil and to travel mostly by foot to Canada.

The two men met in Choluteca, Honduras, on Jan. 18, 2017, and committed to travelling together as a team along the rest of the route, on which migrants are targeted by smugglers and are victims of theft and assault.

Stranded in Mexico

But by the time they were in Mexico City, struggling to find beds in the capital’s few migrant hostels, they realized they were stranded.

The Mexican government would only give them a temporary humanitarian visa to transit through the country, but both men feared the risks of travelling through the United States at a time of travel bans and heated anti-Muslim rhetoric.

“I am a black man, I am a Muslim, and I am a Somali. So in three ways, it is not possible for me to go to the United States,” Ahmed Omar told CBC News in February.

But with little to eat and struggling to find shelter, desperation propelled the two men forward.

They carefully considered where to cross. Stories from other migrants they met in Mexico about being caught by Mexican drug cartels, who frequently smuggle, kidnap and extort migrants attempting to cross the border, frightened the two men.

After careful research, Ahmed Omar and Abdi Omar decided to travel to Tijuana to jump the wall that separates Mexico from the United States on April 9, 2017.

“It is a very militarized area, so after I jumped it was a very scary moment,” says Ahmed Omar. “I saw 12 to 14 [men on motorbikes] running after us. The ground is full of sensors, but it was dark and we couldn’t see anything.

“I was being arrested by well-armed border patrol agents who were having all kinds of military gear. It was a very terrifying, scary moment.”

Released on bond

“The first person I talked to or engaged with was a border security agent who was well-geared like a commando guy, and he told me: ‘Where are you from?’ I answered, Somalia,” adds Ahmed Omar.

“And he told me: ‘You are a f–king terrorist.'”

The two men were arrested, granted security and asylum interviews and transported to the Otay Mesa Immigration Detention Center in San Diego.

Ahmed Omar was held for 40 days before being released on bond for nearly $6,000 US.

“I paid only $6,000, another Somali guy paid $10,000,” says Ahmed Omar. “Another very nice, but poor, guy from Ghana, they tell him to pay $20,000. It’s another way to say, you have to go back to your country. I was able to pay because I sold my house in Somalia.”

Abdi Omar was released on bond June 6.

“The judge cried when she heard my story,” he says. “She just worried for me when she read my credible fear form […] and gave me the lowest amount, $1,500 to come out of detention.”

Planning the next steps

Abdi Omar travelled to St. Cloud, Minn., to spend Ramadan with the city’s large, tight-knit Somali community.

While there, 52 Somali men and women Abdi Omar says he grew up with in Dadaab refugee camp, almost all of whom he says migrated to the U.S. legally, held an emergency meeting to help him plan his next steps.

“But they told me that even though they came [to the United States] legally, they now lived in fear of deportation. They said, go forward, Canada is safe for you.”

The two men planned the last leg of their journey from Minnesota. They say they found a man willing to drive them to the border for $700 US and point them in the direction of Canada.

“He pointed to a tree, and he says, use that as a guide. We called it our north pole,” says Abdi Omar.

The two men can’t help but contrast their experiences entering the United States with that of entering Canada.

“Totally different. I felt like I was a human when they captured me. They told me I was under arrest but they didn’t put me in handcuffs, they just take me to the border, gave me some food, blankets and water,” says Abdi Omar.

‘I feel like I am at home’

Within hours, they were transported to Gretna, a small Mennonite community with a population of approximately 500 where an emptied seniors’ residence has been converted into temporary migrant housing.

Five hours after they arrived, Ahmed Omar says they were invited by local teenagers to play soccer and learn how to square dance.

“I feel like I am at home. I come from the border, and in hours, I am in the school dancing, playing soccer, drinking water, eating watermelon with the whole community, the local people.”

“The first day, I felt like no one cares if I am from Somalia, what is my race or what is my religion.”

After thousands of kilometres behind them, the two men have only one goal left — preparing for their refugee board hearings. Those are supposed to happen within three months, but many are being delayed because of a backlog in security checks and a shortage of board members to hear the cases of asylum seekers.

“I was patient for a long time. I have been through a lot of difficult situations, so this will be the last, and I have to fight for it, and win it. There is no going back,” says Ahmed Omar.

“I do not think the Canadian system can fail me. I hope that it will never fail me.”

Canada

Canada’s institutions repeatedly failed former child refugee Abdoul Abdi

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The ethical case to fight the deportation of former child refugee Abdoul Abdi from Canada is a straightforward one with no visible shades of grey.

Yet it has ballooned into a needless battle exposing federal and provincial indifference to non-citizen children.

On Feb. 15, a Federal Court will hear an emergency request to temporarily stop Abdi’s deportation.

The broad strokes of Abdi’s story are these.

Instability was the only constant in the life of this man, born 24 years ago in Saudi Arabia to a Saudi father and Somali mother. He lived for four years at a refugee camp in Djibouti and then at age 6 landed in Canada along with his sister and aunts.

At age 8, child protective services scooped him and his sister out of their aunt’s home for reasons unknown. This is not surprising — research in Ontario last year showed Aboriginal and Black children are far more likely to be investigated and taken into care than white children.

The family now speculates this could be because their aunt, who didn’t speak much English, took too long to register them for school.

Abdi bounced around among not one or two or a dozen homes but 31 of them, some, he says, abusive situations. A study last year by Ontario’s Provincial Advocate for Children and Youth linked foster care experiences to later outcomes of homelessness and criminality, among others.
Abdi, too, got sucked into illegal activities.

When he messed up, he faced the consequences. About four years in prison for multiple offences, including aggravated assault.

He is also paying the price for errors by the system.

On Jan. 4, no alarm bells were sounded in the labyrinthine corridors of power in Canada, when Canada Border Services Agency officers arrested Abdi as he left prison after serving his sentence and was at the gates of a halfway house.

They were going to deport him, they said. Send him packing because it turned out the kid who grew up in Canada was not a Canadian citizen. His crown parents — the Department of Community Services — had never applied for a citizenship for him.

Where was he being banished? Not to Saudi, his birthplace, which might have been the logical though still unjustifiable choice, but to Somalia, the place of his mother’s ethnic origins, a place so dangerous that Canadian officials and planes don’t go there. A place whose language Abdi does not speak, and where he knows no one.

Repeatedly abandoned as a child, Abdi is now an officially unwanted adult.

It has taken a village, for us to hear of Abdi.

More accurately, it has taken a set of extraordinarily large-hearted individuals, many of whom have never met Abdi, but who are tied together by a passionate rejection of injustice to bring his story to the forefront of our nation’s conscience.

Last month, Halifax poet laureate and activist El Jones chronicled in the Halifax Examiner just one week of the collective action taken for Abdi.

In it she wove the stories of disparate lives criss-crossing through past injustices. How Jones came across Abdi via Coralee Smith, the mother of Ashley Smith who died in 2007, asphyxiated from a ligature tied around her neck as correctional officers watched.

How Abdi’s sister Fatouma courageously challenged Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a town hall in Nova Scotia, thereby ensuring national attention on this case.

How Jones and journalist/activist Desmond Cole questioned Minister of Immigration, Refugees, and Citizenship Ahmed Hussen at a National Black Summit in that city, and endured criticisms of being disruptive and rude and not supporting a fellow Black minister.

“As though,” Jones writes, “having a Black man sign the deportation papers is progress.”

She writes of Abdi’s “fantastic” lawyer Ben Perryman who finds himself suddenly under the glare of media spotlight.

And of the near-misses, the small successes, the support and amplification from Black Lives Matter and academics/activists Rinaldo Walcott and Idil Abdillahi, and student activist Masuma Khan among others.

Here is an important thing:

“All of us have jobs, and school, and families,” she writes. “This isn’t even the only thing we’re advocating on this week, because there’s always more suffering, more rights being denied, more people in need.”

Yet Jones writes of hope, and of love that carries them forward.

Their undertaking serves to underline the inhumanity of the decisions that mark this case.

Federal minister of public safety Ralph Goodale refused to pause a deportation hearing while Abdi’s lawyers mount a constitutional challenge to his deportation. At its hearing on March 7, the Immigration and Refugee Board will not review the complexities of the case to decide if Abdi can enter or remain in the country, his lawyer told the CBC. His criminal record will inevitably lead to a deportation order, he said.

A deportation order would automatically strip Abdi’s permanent resident status.

No PR status means he can’t keep his job, means he risks going back to prison; being employed is a condition for his release.

And round and round it goes.

This is the face of institutions ganging up against vulnerable individuals. Earlier this week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told an audience in Quebec it’s time to recognize anti-Black racism exists in Canada. “Canada can and must do better,” he said.

What are we waiting for?

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Ottawa police identify Northview Road homicide victim as Egal Daud

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CBC — Ottawa police have identified the man found dead inside a vehicle in Nepean Sunday as Egal Daud, 30, and say he was fatally shot.
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Daud’s body was found inside a parked car on Northview Road, near the intersection of Baseline and Merivale roads, around 10 a.m.
The Ottawa police major crime unit, which is leading the investigation, said his body may have been there since Saturday.

Staff Sgt. Bruce Pirt added on Sunday police didn’t yet know if the shooting happened there, or if that’s just where the vehicle was left.

Anyone with information is asked to call the major crime unit at 613-236-1222 extension 5493 or give an anonymous tip via Crime Stoppers or the Ottawa police app.

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WATCH: Canada under fire for bid to deport Somali refugee

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Canada is facing criticism from human rights groups for its attempts to deport a 24-year-old immigrant to Somalia. Abdoul Abdi was born in Saudi Arabia and he says he has no ties to Somalia, where there have been years of violence from the armed group al-Shabab.

For now, the deportation is postponed while his lawyers ask a court to allow him to stay.

Al Jazeera’s Daniel Lak reports from Toronto.

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