The men met by chance on Dec. 23, in the Minneapolis bus station. Each had planned to walk across the border from northern Minnesota into Manitoba, and they decided to join forces and split the fare for a cab. Both admit they were woefully underdressed for the trip, which for both men was the last leg of a long journey across many borders, beginning in Brazil years before.
Mr. Iyal left Ghana after a dispute over inheritance with his brothers became violent and put him in the hospital. The police, he said, were unwilling to take action. He bought a ticket to São Paulo, Brazil, and from there, made his way slowly — by plane, bus, boat and foot — to the United States border, where he filed for asylum and was detained for 21 months.
Mr. Mohammed’s journey also took to him to Brazil, trying out for a professional soccer team. After his agent found him in bed with a man — an act that could get him imprisoned in Ghana, where gay sex remains illegal — and threatened to expose him, Mr. Mohammed fled. He, too, made the arduous journey to the United States, where he also asked for asylum and spent seven months in detention.
Both men lost in their hearings. The system, they say, was rigged against them; they could not afford lawyers, nor long-distance phone calls back to Ghana to assemble their cases.
In Canada, they were granted legal aid and won their cases.
Mr. Mohammed clearly met the Canadian legal definition of a refugee under United Nations rules because his sexual orientation meant he would have been persecuted had he returned to Ghana, said Bashir Khan, the immigration lawyer who represented both men.
Mr. Iyal’s case was a much less likely bet because he was fleeing a family spat, and not obvious persecution, Mr. Khan said. But his chance encounter with Mr. Mohammed and their fateful night together in the snow led the news media in Ghana to state repeatedly that both men were gay, even though Mr. Iyal had a wife back in Ghana. That perception put his life at risk and gave him a good legal case to win asylum, Mr. Khan said.
In Winnipeg, the two men are quasi celebrities. Their cellphones ring regularly with unexpected invitations. The small Ghanaian community has rallied to their support, helping them fill out forms for passports and social insurance numbers and stocking their refrigerator with fufu and peanut stew.
They have both begun occupational therapy to learn how to do basic things like brushing their teeth.
The road ahead is daunting, particularly for Mr. Mohammed, 24, who has only two paddle-like hands. His plastic surgeon has offered to transfer two toes from each foot, which would operate like fingers and offer him complete independence — with all costs covered by Canada’s social medicine program.
“He is crazy lucky,” said Dr. Edward Buchel, the head of plastic surgery for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority. “He ended up in a country willing to put out multimillion dollars for repeated hospital trips, surgeries, drugs, rehab, physiotherapy and occupational therapy for years.”
But to date, Mr. Mohammed has adamantly refused. He quit school at age 11 to train full time as a soccer player, and he dreams of playing professionally again. For that, he thinks he needs his toes.
Mr. Iyal’s prospects seem brighter.
Every morning, he showers, makes himself breakfast and boards a city bus to a charity for Muslim women, where he volunteers daily. There, he sorts donated clothing and distributes food as a volunteer among a boisterous crowd of Ghanaian men, who challenge him continually to prove himself.
“Put your coin on the ground,” he proclaimed to one and then, with the help of a simple Velcro strap, picked it up to cheers. “I can do it!”
He dreams of running an appliance store, like the one he owned in Ghana, and sponsoring his wife to come to Canada. God, he said, kept him and Mr. Mohammed alive for a reason.
Mr. Iyal understands his luck at starting life again. He rarely dwells on what he has lost, he said.
Last week, after finishing his volunteer shift, he stopped to give a homeless man on the street some money. The man asked to see his hands, and then held up his own — revealing no fingers. He too had lost his hands to frostbite, Mr. Iyal said.
“He was a Canadian guy, on the street begging,” he said. But then, he stoked his optimism again and reminded himself of his luck.
“He doesn’t have one thumb,” Mr. Iyal said. “I encourage myself. I can do something in my life. I’m a young boy. I can still make it.”