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’s immigration minister warns against illegal crossings at Minnesota’s northern border
Canada’s immigration minister, Ahmed Hussen, arrived in Minnesota just days after the U.S. Supreme Court let stand for now new travel restrictions for eight countries, including Somalia — the land a teenage Hussen fled with his family.
But even as he has come to symbolize for some the divergent immigration philosophies on either side of the U.S.-Canada border, Hussen shuns criticism of the Trump administration’s approach. In fact, he was in the Twin Cities this week in part to discourage a spike in asylum-seekers crossing into Canada this year that has tested the country’s famously welcoming attitude.
“We are huge fans of immigration, but we want people to immigrate through the regular channels,” he said.
In a speech at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs, Hussen touted Canada’s measured approach, including a gradual increase in immigration planned over the next three years.
He met with resettlement agency staff and other advocates, plugging a unique Canadian program in which private citizens and churches sponsor some refugees.
Members of the local Somali community, where he enjoys rock star status, threw him a welcoming reception in Minneapolis.
“He is an icon,” said Mohamed Ahmed, a local community leader and Bush Foundation fellow. “People see him as an example of what is possible in the West.”
The first Somali-Canadian elected to parliament and appointed as minister, Hussen was 16 when he arrived alone in Toronto, where older brothers had resettled earlier. He has spoken of finding a sense of belonging on his high school track team and of enduring a two-hour commute as he worked at a gas station to save money for college.
He got a law degree from the University of Ottawa and practiced criminal and immigration law. Once a receptionist in an opposition politician’s office, he was elected to parliament in 2015. In January, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tapped him to lead the Ministry of Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship.
“I am a big champion of our immigration system because I have been through it,” said Hussen, whose visit to Minneapolis was his third to the United States since becoming minister.
In the media, Hussen is often cast as an emblem of Canada’s stance against anti-immigration sentiments sweeping the United States and Europe. But he is unfailingly diplomatic about the differences between the Canadian and American approaches, saying only he has a good working relationship with counterparts on this side of the border. And, he stresses, Canada is by no means unified in support of more immigration.
A recent rise in illegal border crossings into Canada has triggered pushback from conservative politicians there and concerns from border communities such as the Manitoba city of Emerson, unsettled and overwhelmed by the arrivals. In Manitoba, many of those arrivals have been Somalis who had unsuccessfully applied for asylum in the United States. Now, Hussen and some Canadian lawmakers are reaching out to immigrant communities to highlight that border crossers undergo rigorous screening and face deportation if their asylum claims fall short.
“We don’t want people uprooting their lives based on false information,” Hussen said. “Crossing the border irregularly is not a free ticket to Canada.”
Ahmed said word in the local Somali community remains that Canada offers a much gentler welcome to those arriving at its border with asylum claims. He spoke of a friend, a permanent resident who faced deportation after a criminal conviction, who crossed into Canada this year. Though he doesn’t know yet if he will be granted asylum, the friend reports receiving subsidized housing and free legal help, Ahmed said.
To a packed auditorium at the Humphrey School, Hussen touted a plan the Canadian government released in November that will bring in almost 1 million new immigrants by 2020. About 60 percent will be employment-based immigrants, largely arriving through a merit-based system that awards points for education, language and professional skills, among other factors.
Hussen said doing immigration right requires an investment: The Canadian government is spending $1 billion this year on language classes, help with finding jobs and other integration efforts. But he said bringing in newcomers is crucial to ward off a looming labor shortage given Canada’s aging population.
“We strongly believe immigration is key to our future success in Canada,” he said.
Hussen also praised a Canadian refugee resettlement system in which, alongside the government’s program, private citizens and organizations commit to supporting refugees for a year.
The country has found these refugees do better easing into Canadian life. Hussen said the United Kingdom and several Latin American countries are modeling new programs on the Canadian approach, though he hasn’t yet fielded inquiries from the United States.
Hussen said with more refugees displaced globally than ever before in modern history, Canada plans to remain a key player in resettlement: “More people are on the move, and we can’t turn our heads away.”
Somali man found guilty in kidnapping of Canadian journalist
REUTERS — A Somali national has been convicted in an Ontario court for his role in the 2008 kidnapping of Canadian Amanda Lindhout, who was held captive in Somalia for 460 days and released only after her family paid a ransom, Canadian media reported on Wednesday.
Ali Omar Ader, 40, was found guilty of one charge of hostage-taking for his role as negotiator for the kidnappers, in a decision handed down on Wednesday in Ontario Superior Court in Ottawa.
Lindhout, a freelance journalist, was taken hostage in Somalia on Aug. 23, 2008, along with Australian photographer Nigel Brennan, while working on a story. They were released for ransom in November 2009.
Ader was lured to Canada from Somalia in 2015 and arrested in Ottawa as part of a sting operation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police in which an officer posed as a publisher interested in a book Ader was writing on Somalia, according to court documents.
Prosecutors argued that Ader had been the main spokesman for the hostage-takers, negotiating first with Lindhout’s mother and later with a private consultant hired by the families of Lindhout and Brennan.
According to court documents, he referred to himself as “a commander” and repeatedly threatened that the hostages would be harmed or killed unless the ransom was paid.
During his trial, Ader said that he too had been kidnapped by the group holding Lindhout captive, and was forced to act as their spokesman, as he spoke some English.
In his ruling, Justice Robert Smith said Ader’s claims were “completely unbelievable,” numerous Canadian media outlets reported. Reuters has not read the ruling.
Ader faces up to life in prison. Sentencing in the case is not expected until next year.
Lindhout has said she was repeatedly sexually and physically assaulted during her captivity, and both she and Brennan have said they were tortured and starved.
In 2013, Lindhout recounted her experience in the book “A House in the Sky.”
Two Canadas: My story of generosity and systemic racism | Honourable Ahmed Hussen
TEDx — Hon. Ahmed Hussen entered Canada a child refugee, and today is Minister of Immigration and Refugees. He shares his experience of Canada: a country of immense generosity, but also one that struggles with systemic racism, and paints a bold picture of how a country can become truly great.
Ahmed Hussen is Canada’s Immigration Minister and Member of Parliament for the riding of York South-Weston. A lawyer and social activist, he has a proven track record of leadership and community empowerment.
Born and raised in Somalia, Ahmed immigrated to Canada in 1993; In 2002, he co-founded the Regent Park Community Council, which helped secure a $500 million revitalization project for the area, and he has been widely recognized for his significant contributions to the city of Toronto.
This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.