Saturday 17 August 2019

Crossing continents

The Snowman

A refugee from Ghana made his way across the world to Canada. His journey has made him famous but at a terrible cost. Stephen Marche sat down with Seidu Mohammed – or Babankowa – to hear his story

This story appeared in the Tortoise Quarterly. Depending on your membership, you’ll have received your copy in glorious, old-fashioned print or as an ebook. To buy a copy of our short book of long reads visit

In the darkness the engines sputtered and the boat shuddered and then there was only the lapping of the waves. The refugees on board, crammed to the brim, knew that many had died on that stretch of the ocean between the Colombian coast and the Darién Gap. The smugglers inspected the engines, made phone calls, shrugged. They shared no language with their cargo. In the silence the refugees began to pray, the Muslims, the Christians, the Nepalese, lifting their voices in a jumble of aspirations, when from under the surface of the waters a beast with an enormous back – some kind of whale or snake? – brushed against the side of the boat. The refugees let out one countryless scream.

There were three moments in his journey from Ghana to Canada when Babankowa was certain he was going to die. Once in the snow, once in prison, the first when that unknown monster tipped the boat in the Gulf of Urabá.

The world hates refugees. The number of displaced persons now stands at 70 million and the response of the settled world has consisted mainly of considered cruelty: to blast them with hoses as in Hungary, to leave them on desolate islands as in Australia, to separate them from their children as in the United States. “We are human,” a sign raised outside the refugee camp on the island of Lesbos reads. The reminder has been mostly ignored. The settled world does not want refugees to be human. The refugees insist that they are. Inside that discrepancy, epics are born every day, journeys of unimaginable length and precariousness, stories that seem not so much formed out of the facts of the 21st century as out of myth.

This is one. The journey of Babankowa – Babankowa to his friends; Seidu Mohammed on his papers – was so dangerous and improbable that some judges in America have refused to believe it even though it followed an established route. That route leads from Africa to Brazil, and from Brazil by plane, bus, boat and bicycle, by foot, by front crawl and by pulling your own legs through waist-high snow, to Canada – a journey across half the Earth.

How life falls apart

First, see Babankowa whole and happy; the happiest he has ever been. It’s 2014, he is 22 and in bed in Brazil with a man named Ronnes.

Good fortune had brought him to that room. Only a few weeks earlier he had been in Ghana, playing semi-professional football and hustling T-shirts in Accra as a sideline. One day his manager, Amin Dauda, known to his clients and myriad contacts as the Big Man, had called him into his office with the best news possible. He had been offered a trial at Criciúma in Brazil, a big club with the prospect of a big salary, a big life. His brothers, sister and parents bubbled over. As for Babankowa himself, it had been the only dream he’d ever known.

In the flesh Brazil matched the seduction of its promise. The club paid for his tickets to the semi-finals of the World Cup in Rio that year – Argentina-Netherlands and Germany-Brazil. The trial went well too. The coaches were encouraging. For the first time in a long while, Babankowa thought he might have a chance to relax. So he went to a club, a gay club, where he met Ronnes.

“Are you a football player?” Ronnes asked.


“That’s a good thing.” And in a quiet corner Babankowa started learning Brazilian Portuguese. What does this mean? What does that mean? And then, back at the hotel room, what do you mean? What do I mean?

The next morning room service brought breakfast. As the staff were laying out plates Babankowa needed the bathroom; on their way out, the staff left the door ajar. And that’s all it took. Through a crack, a door left open by a careless worker, all the evils in the world may rush.

His manager walked in. Shock, loathing, disgrace. And a gush of hatred. The Big Man told Babankowa that his people would give him everything he deserved. Hell was in store for him; there was no football for faggots.

Babankowa grabbed what he could – clothes, passport, money, phone – and ran. Just like that, he went from professional footballer to homeless man in a city where he didn’t know the language.

In Ghana he had hidden his desire for men. He always had a girlfriend; his people would have killed him, he says, if they knew he had a boyfriend too. They called it instant justice. The police would have thrown him in jail but that was slower justice, not better.

His manager’s rage in Criciúma was the rage Babankowa had feared his entire life, the risk he had run from the beginning. And when he called his mother, she handed down the commandment he had dreaded. Don’t come home. His father had disowned him.

The Gap

In a park in Criciúma, desperate and alone, Babankowa met the Haitian. He knew him as the Haitian because he was the only Haitian he had ever known and Haitian names were unpronounceable to him. They spoke via the translation functions on their phones. The Haitian told him of a man, also with a name he couldn’t pronounce, who had travelled from Ecuador up to the United States. Babankowa had a brother in the United States – Kamal, in Florida. The Haitian said the man had taken buses and boats. Babankowa asked how much it had cost, and the Haitian had said $1,500. Babankowa had only three.

That’s what it means to be a refugee: the future is impossible but there’s no going back. So he asked his sister in Accra to sell his television and his fridge, and she sold her sewing machine, too, her livelihood, and with the wired money he flew with the Haitian to Ecuador. From there they headed north.

From the moment they left the airport, Babankowa and the Haitian learned what it means to have a black face in the Americas. You’re on the bus. You have paid the same for your ticket as everyone else. The police stop the bus. They bring everybody out. Correction: they bring everybody black out. They ask you for papers you do not have. They ask for money you cannot give. They ransack your clothes and bags for any little pittance. They tell you to bend over. They stick their latexed fingers up your asshole, digging for buried treasure.

That was Colombia for Babankowa. Not the orchids or the emerald mountains or the glamorous cities curving out of forests down to the succulent sea. Five times the fingers went up the same sore asshole. He learned to sew whatever he wanted to keep into a seam under his belt.

The Haitian knew the way, knew the guys to know. At the end of the road, in Turbo, they arrived at a cluster of wooden huts on the water where shifty-eyed men waited, stunted by desperations of their own. If they were smugglers, their smuggling hadn’t fattened them up any. They asked Babankowa and the Haitian for $300 each.

From Turbo you had to cross the ocean, and on the other side was Panama. Once there you could walk, they said. You could walk up through the Darién Gap. It was the first time Babankowa had heard the name.

The Darién Gap is the name given to the stretch of jungle between Colombia and Panama, a stretch without roads, a kind of shadow on the earth. You put what you don’t want seen there. It’s a conduit for the smuggling of drugs and people, a hide-out for FARC guerrillas, a stretch of land so inhospitable they left it to the tribes. It’s a swampy labyrinth stalked by ocelots, hopping with poison-dart frogs, a trackless tract where the wings of blue morpho butterflies brush over the unclosed eyes of the corpses of refugees. It is a hinge between continents, the pubic bone of the Americas. In short, it’s a gap. A few fall in, and fewer crawl out.

Money changed hands and Babankowa and the Haitian waited until the middle of the night. In darkness the smuggler brought them, four hours by boat, to a spit of land where they were rounding up all the refugees who had paid for that journey, as much human dust as they could sweep into a single boat to maximise the profit on the journey.

It was a dead place, thick with mosquitoes, and there in the middle of nowhere Babankowa met a bunch of guys he knew. The odds against were overwhelming but it was true. There was Musa, a guy he’d played football with as a kid, Musa who had gone on to play for a club in Thailand. And there, there was Bargi, his brother’s buddy – they had sat around watching Nollywood movies as kids. And Karim, a team-mate from his days in the third division in Ghana, long ago. And Mubarak, who grew up 20 minutes away from his family’s place in Accra – he knew his wife and kids. Somehow, they had all ended up here, at the same moment. There were 16 Ghanaians, most of them from Kumasi, and half a dozen Nepalese, waiting on that shore. While they were waiting, the guide looked down, brought his foot down hard and picked up the carcass of a scorpion that could have killed any one of them.

The smugglers loaded all the humanity they could stuff on to their little ark. Everybody pressed against the flesh of everybody else and off they pushed. Countless forgotten people had died on that midnight crossing, and now, halfway from Turbo to the other side, the engine began to sputter and choke. In the darkness Babankowa heard only the lapping of the waves against the sides and felt the deep indifferent quiet of the ocean. The smugglers shrugged. Everyone else started praying, the Nepalese in their language, the Ghanaians in theirs. There’s only one prayer in a boat like that: God, keep us alive.

From the depths, a shape, a beast of some sort, smashed the hull, rising, turning it, nearly capsizing them all. “What was that?” Nobody knew, but everybody knew that many had died on that stretch of water.

Who knows how prayers are answered? That night they were lucky. The smugglers came with a new engine, and in two hours they had crossed to something like land.

It wasn’t solid land but swamp, through which the boat needed to be pushed. In their exhaustion, Babankowa and the others slipped into the gooey sludge and pushed their way in, until they came to a settlement where they could buy rice and tomatoes and onions with a few spices, and mix it up. It wasn’t tasty but they were hungry.

Two hours’ walking and they arrived in a tribal settlement. There the traditional people of the Darién Gap – long-haired, with ink-blackened arms and bright-patterned sarongs – told them the truth.

Darién Gap in Panama

“Where is Panama?” the refugees asked, again through the translation devices on their phones.


“How far?”

“Aja. Aja. Walking. Two or three days.”

Two or three days? How were they supposed to walk through the jungle for two or three days? And why hadn’t the smugglers told them that it was going to take that long? That question answered itself: if they had known, they wouldn’t have paid to come.

An impossible future and no way back.

The next morning, the party of 20 or so began to walk. The people from the tribal settlement gave them water and bread and pointed the way to a small path. The refugees walked all day through the jungle, and when night fell they lit a fire and tried to sleep.

The next day they kept walking because that was all there was to do. Soon enough, much sooner than anybody expected, the food was gone, and then the water. There were dead bodies, human detritus, bones and energy drinks on the side of the path. Babankowa saw a fresh human corpse, a Nepalese man far from his people, who looked like he had just lain down and never stood up again.

Karim, Babankowa and Mubarak were up ahead, but Mubarak began to fade. They were fighting through roots and overgrowth with sticks but no machetes. The weakness spread to Mubarak’s eyes and mouth. Eventually Karim and Babankowa had to carry him. His thirst was killing him so Babankowa told Mubarak to piss in a bottle and drink it. He couldn’t manage to choke the liquid down. By the time the light fell that second night he looked as if he had had a stroke. His jaws had locked. He had to breathe through his nose. “Please don’t die,” Babankowa whispered, fanning him with a cloth.

“Babankowa,” Mubarak said through his clenched teeth. “Thank you so much for everything you’ve done for me.”

“You’re going to make it. You’re strong.”

Mubarak said no, no, and that he would pray for his friend. Who knows how prayers are answered?

Karim was already asleep. A few of the party caught up. Exhaustion swallowed them all in its warm arms.

A huge black monkey, a howler, startled Babankowa awake. He saw its massive eyes and mouth in the night, grabbed a stick and hollered to scare it off. It backed away to a tree close by, waiting and watching in the branches. Babankowa used the light of his phone to keep an eye on it but his phone’s battery was dying. All night the howler waited there, like death, but there was no need for metaphors. In the morning, Mubarak was a corpse beside him. A man with a wife and two children. Babankowa wept until he had to walk again.

The funeral for Mubarak was the light covering of the clothes they could spare, and the prayers they could remember. Then the refugees walked away, and six hours later came across a pillar; a marker. They were in Panama.

Just past the pillar a small lake dropped into the valley like a kind word. Even now Babankowa remembers the ecstasy of the long jump into open water, the cool relief of the soak. Somebody even found plantains. They cooked and ate them, and walked on past the lake until they came across a rusted truck. They were in the world of people again, where bodies are carried away and trucks are left to rot, and Babankowa passed out in the heat.


He came to in a military camp in Panama with an IV in his arm. Babankowa was a registered refugee again. What does that mean? They take you into a bathroom. You’re bent over, with some cop’s finger up your ass.

Money. You need money to stay in the camp, and money to leave. There’s a boat. Twenty dollars for the boat. He told them he had only ten. Stay and starve, they said. Sleep on the pavement. So he found the 20.

At the second camp, money. There the lost men and women of the brown world were sleeping out in the open, without blankets, beside another lake. Not just Ghanaians and Nepalese but Indians and East Africans, all needing money; to stay, to leave. Impossible to go forward and no way back.

At the third camp they don’t care if you stay or leave but they need money for camp four. At the fourth camp Babankowa was able to catch a bus into Panama City, and there he met up with Majid, Karim, Faisal and Danjuma, men he had known in the jungle.

In Panama City, at immigration, he signed papers agreeing to leave the country in ten days, and went out and begged on the streets and slept in the bus station with the other four until they had enough money to leave. The sight of a uniform was the sight of fear. They dodged police, hid down alleys, jumped off the bus to hide in the woods.

On the border with Costa Rica they went looking for smugglers again. These smugglers didn’t look suspicious like the ones in Turbo. They were clean, nice-looking, gentle, proper. Majid had a bad feeling but Babankowa said no, they looked trustworthy.

They set out at two in the morning into the bush, unable to see a thing. All the while their guide kept taking phone calls, with a woman on the other end of the line. After hours on the move they began to wonder: how long does it take to walk across a border?

“Where are we going?”

“Tranquilo, tranquilo,” the guides answered.

“Where are we going?”

“We are almost there.”

Another hour, and the bush was no lighter. What was going on?

“Where are we going?”


Then the jungle filled with voices and beams of light. The guide hurried them to hide in a dark trench. They did what they were told but it was a trap. They had put themselves into the smugglers’ pot. Babankowa, frightened into a ferocity he could not understand, rushed out in panicky violence, flailing with his stick. He escaped; his friends were not so lucky. The smuggler-thieves left Karim and Faisal in their underwear, with nothing: no money, no shoes, no phones, no food. They had stolen the bag that had everybody’s passports.

They kept walking. Karim’s foot split open and Babankowa had to wrap the messy flesh in bandages made from a ripped shirt. Then it started to rain, and they stopped under a broad-leafed tree until morning, when a farmer, a man on a brown horse with his cows, found them. He fed them and pointed out the direction they ought to be heading. Babankowa gave the farmer what he had to give – a ridiculous present, a pair of shorts. His last pair.

At the bus terminal, looking for the way into Guatemala, the band of refugees pooled their money, which wasn’t much. A group of hustlers said they knew a place where people knew a place to cross. A beach. So Babankowa and the others followed them to the beach. Out came a knife, but this time the refugees knew to fight back with whatever they had: sticks and stones and fists and feet. One of the robbers running away threw a stone that gashed Babankowa’s hand.

With his injured hand he tickled his way up the spine of the continent, sleeping in terminals, hiding in bushes from police and riding on the backs of bicycles. At the Usumacinta river between Guatemala and Mexico they didn’t have 20 pesos each so they swam across. The water came to their necks but it only took 15 minutes, and in the Mexican bus station they asked a tall fellow with black pants and clean shoes the way to Mexican immigration. He smiled and took them to a restaurant and told them that he knew a place where they could cross over to the United States. They knew better than to trust strangers now, but he put them in a cab to Mexican immigration and paid for it, and so they ended up in a Mexican prison, ten people in four beds, flat cement to sleep on, with the shitter right at their heads.

They made a little money in the prison by buying packs of cigarettes and selling them as singles, and by betting on football matches with the Mexican prisoners. After a month, Babankowa was released into the streets of Tapachula, where he ran into a man from the Congo, who told him about a woman who helped immigrants. She rented him a hotel for a couple of nights and received Western Union money on his behalf from his brother Kamal for a reasonable fee. From there it was just a three-day bus ride to San Diego.

On 17 May 2015, Babankowa declared himself a refugee to the appropriate authorities at the San Diego border. “You should go and stand outside,” the US Border Patrol officer said, so he went and stood outside with the other refugees from 8am to 11pm without food or water. Babankowa asked another officer if he could leave to go find water, but he had crossed into the United States, had no permission to move around there and no permission to cross back into Mexico. “We thought Americans were not that kind of people,” one of the wanderers grumbled. The officer shouted at him to shut up. “You don’t have the right to talk shit.”

Land of the free

The United States of America once raised a statue of a woman holding out a lamp promising liberty to the wretched of the earth, but that was far from San Diego and a long time ago. Between 1980 and 2015, the US resettled three of the four million asylum-seekers in the world. Now the rest of the world settles nearly twice as many. In 2016, the US took in 85,000 of the world’s displaced; in 2018 it set a limit of 45,000.

Here’s how it goes. First they take your name and fingerprints. Then they put you in an air-conditioned room – a room crammed in Babankowa’s case with people from Africa, India, Mexico and Nicaragua. The room was so full it was impossible to sleep or stretch your legs.

Adelanto Detention Facility houses an average of 1,100 immigrants

The AC was on full blast. When they begged to have it turned down, officers informed them that it was beyond their power to alter the internal environment of the facility. Light blankets were handed out and Babankowa managed a shivering sleep. In the morning they were given wraps of beans and meat, and in the evening they were given the wraps of beans and meat left over from the morning.

By the time of his “credible fear” hearing (to establish whether he had a credible fear of returning to his home country), Babankowa hadn’t had a bath in a week. The agent was a Muslim guy who listened to his story through a decent Hausa translator, and Babankowa told the whole story, about the threats from Ghana, and how he couldn’t go home without being tortured. When he finished, the agent started yelling: “Why are you here?” “Why did you leave really?” “Why did you leave Brazil?” More questions followed, more quietly. Babankowa was asked for a name, for a passport which he didn’t have.

The agent gave him a credible fear ruling; they found that he was fleeing a real threat in Ghana. Nevertheless, they sent him to Adelanto Detention Facility, a private prison in the high desert near San Bernardino, California.

The federal government guarantees the operator of the Adelanto facility a minimum payment of $111 per detainee per day up to 975 inmates. After that, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has to pay only $50 per detainee per day. The logic of the market encourages the operator to hold as many prisoners as possible, as cheaply as possible, and that logic has its consequences. Local reports have described several examples of the institution’s indifference to its prisoners, including that of a paralysed man denied a sterile catheter, leading to a life-threatening infection, and an epileptic denied a helmet. In 2017, California’s Inspector General found “significant health and safety risks” in Adelanto prison after three immigrants died there. It is an institution plagued with suicide attempts. San Bernardino County has severed ties with it, but it remains open to new arrivals.

Prisoners at Adelanto are colour-coded: blue for a refugee, orange for a criminal, red for a dangerous criminal. All are mixed in together. The gang leaders at Adelanto were decent about it, though. Because Babankowa was a refugee he had to clean the toilet and make the bed for only one of the gang leaders, a Mexican, for protection.

Occasionally they served beef at Adelanto, but it was bloody and stank. They served chicken once every three months. Babankowa started to sicken, and discovered that the medical system in the prison worked with radical efficiency. If you were sick you wrote to your ICE officer asking for treatment. A response took two weeks, so he waited two weeks for a denial of medical treatment and after those two weeks he required emergency treatment. From emergency, he wrote to his ICE officer again to tell him he would like one more visit to inform him of his imminent death. The officer came the following day to inform him nothing more could be done. This was the second time Babankowa believed he was going to die. The sickness lifted, and he knew he was going to live.

Back in 2007, a team of legal scholars from Georgetown University described the American asylum apparatus as “refugee roulette”. The study took a meta-data approach to the results of refugee court deliberations. “The analysis reveals amazing disparities in grant rates, even when different adjudicators in the same office each considered large numbers of applications from nationals of the same country,” the report reads. Unrepresented asylum-seekers had a 16.3 per cent success rate compared with 45.6 per cent of those represented by counsel. Female judges granted asylum at a 53.8 per cent rate compared with 37.3 per cent for male. These are patterns but they should not be confused with order. “The chance of winning asylum was strongly affected,” they wrote, “by the random assignment of a case to a particular immigration judge.” There’s no system really. Just people.

Six months after being sent to Adelanto, Babankowa received a bail hearing. The judge, Elizabeth McGrail, set bail at a $28,000, which might as well have been $28 million. At his asylum tribunal a month later, Babankowa could tell McGrail didn’t like him. He was shaking a little, from nerves. There were six people in the room, all against him, and this old white woman with her short blonde hair was not impressed. He was bisexual, black and Muslim. A trifecta.

Under inquisition, Babankowa’s story started crumbling in front of his eyes. The ICE agent had forgotten to send the folio of evidence that demonstrated the scope of homophobia in Ghana, the torture he would face if he returned. Babankowa had asked for a Hausa translator, but the man must have been from some remote corner of West Africa where Hausa was a second, maybe a third, language. Babankowa told the judge that he would like to speak in English but the judge said that he had asked for a translator so he would be translated. Then they called his brother and his sister-in-law, who explained that, once released, he would come to live with them, but the judge hung up on them.

Refugees cross the border into Canada by following the railroad tracks into Emerson, Manitoba

When Elizabeth McGrail returned from her deliberations, she denied Babankowa’s application for asylum. Babankowa asked why, and she said she didn’t believe him. And that was that.

He returned to Adelanto prison, where he stewed and starved and rotted. The ragged meat there gave everybody diarrhoea. After nine months, a group in the prison – Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Ghanaians among them – decided to starve to death or be released. An ICE officer named Brown came to their hunger strike and told them that if they would eat they would be released. They said no; if they were released, then they would eat. Brown repeated that he didn’t want to release them until after they had eaten, and the refugees repeated that they would prefer to be released first. Then they would eat.

Two weeks into these deliberations a Ghanaian prisoner passed out from hunger. Officer Brown came again and promised that if the prisoners ate they would be released. No one had to die. So the hunger strikers had a conference and agreed. They would eat so they would be released. And they ate. And they were not released.

Slowly Babankowa’s credit at the commissary dried up. He didn’t have enough money to make a phone call to ask his brother for more money, but he did find out that his brother, who worked at Walmart in Holiday, Florida, had managed a loan to cover his bail. They paid $8,000 and an extra $420 a month for the duration of the loan to cover the difference between the $8,000 and the $28,000 set by the judge.

Release. A short Latino man was waiting for Babankowa at the prison gates with a leg bracelet – a huge chunky thing – and a bus ticket. Because of the leg bracelet, the whole time Babankowa spent in the United States he could only ever wear long trousers. In Holiday, Babankowa wept in his brother’s arms.

The north

So what will I do?” Babankowa asked. For a year he’d had a flavour of the undocumented American life, working at a pho restaurant for a while and then sweeping up at a car mechanic’s in Youngstown, Ohio, when the family moved. Then his asylum appeal was denied, which meant that at any moment ICE could return him to prison, or to Ghana.


Babankowa had heard about Ghanaians crossing into Canada from North Dakota. What did his brother Kamal know about Canada?

“It costs a lot.”

It would cost less than the $15,000 for the appeal, though. That was for sure.

So. Two buses to Minneapolis, the closest city to the border. And there, in the station, he met Razak, the only black man in the state as far as Babankowa could tell. Razak was, if you can believe it, from Ghana. He, too, was headed north. He, too, had no idea how.

A thin white man with a beard pulled up in a black taxi and offered to take them for $200 each. And it was the old question you face everywhere you are a stranger. What choice do you have but to trust?

The cabbie drove them all the way to Grand Forks, North Dakota, as promised. A little more than an hour away. It was now about 9pm.

“Get down here,” the man said.

Here? They were on a road lined with snowbanks, in the middle of the tabletop flatness of the type of country that offers no resistance except distance. They should walk on the left side, the cabbie told them, because on the right side, the US patrollers came patrolling. The cab turned back the way it had come and roared off.

Babankowa and Razak walked up the road. A car came and they dived into a snowbank, coming up shaken by the cold. Babankowa had known the cold in Ohio and assumed that the cold in Canada was the same. He was wearing three coats, and sneakers, and a baseball hat.

It was Christmas Eve.

After two hours, sometimes walking, sometimes jogging, they saw what looked like a lighthouse in the middle of the snow; a small white light, turning. The border station. It looked close, but it was out there, walking towards that light, that Babankowa met real cold.

At times the border between North Dakota and Manitoba is colder than the surface of Mars. The light looked close but it took four or five hours and the cold seemed to grow fiercer. The wind picked up. Then, near the station, they faced a choice. To go to the light or to the side of the light.

“We should go to the border,” Razak said.

“No, no. We’ve come so far,” Babankowa said, so they veered off into the field. The snow in fields was higher than their waists and still falling. They had to thrust their arms down into it, grab their knees and pull their legs up, marionettes of their own willpower.

Cold is a god in Canada. Respect it or die. Razak wanted to turn back but Babankowa said no. “We spent a lot of money. Lets keep going.”

The border had to be somewhere up ahead.

They walked, hour after hour, until they started to realise that the cold they had known in other places was all just ice cubes in a glass you hold to your forehead to ward off the sweat. This cold killed. Bit by bit it gnawed at the edges of Babankowa’s ears and probed into his eyes. His hat blew off his head, and as he took off his glove to reach for it the glove blew away. He was too blinded by the snow and wind to fumble in the powder for it.

“Seidu! Seidu!”

It was Razak’s voice. Babankowa could follow the sound of his own name in that wilderness, and not much more.

“Seidu! Seidu! Canada!”

Razak had seen a sign in English and French, and that meant Canada. Babankowa and Razak came out on to a long, empty highway. Lights appeared as a pinprick in the distance, drew close, doubled. The refugees waved and the car drove by. Babankowa and Razak stayed there, in Canada, in the middle of the night where the cold is death; not as an idea but as lived experience. That’s what the smoke of your breath is. Death being breathed in. Life being breathed out.

The next lights came half an hour later. Razak and Babankowa jumped and waved but the car roared past. Babankowa couldn’t feel his ears, his eyes, his hands, his feet. He couldn’t feel his head. He couldn’t feel himself.

Razak’s trousers started falling down, and he called for Babankowa to help him. There was nothing Babankowa could do, so Razak stepped out of his trousers leaving $30 and a Koran from his father on that desolate stretch of road. That was how tired they were. They couldn’t stoop to gather up Razak’s father’s prayers and money. Lights appeared, doubled, blared past. Babankowa could see ice between his fingers.

They agreed, to each other, to die. “Everything that happens happens for a reason,” Babankowa said. “Let’s give everything to God.”

“It’s the end of our life,” Razak agreed. “This is how God wanted it to happen.”

They sat in the cold, relieved that life wasn’t going to ask any more of them.

A screech; a long delirious screech of tyres. Down the highway a man was standing in his own reddened exhaust. Babankowa and Razak hobbled up and leapt into his cab, and in the warmth of his face saw the unexpected resumption of life.

It was warm inside. Babankowa could not stop crying because of the warmth. With the return of life to his limbs came a racking, budding pain. Babankowa could see, with disengaged fascination, that there were ice rings in the joints of his fingers. His joints crunched when he moved them. It was Christmas Day.

An ambulance came and took the two of them to Morris General Hospital, 30 miles north of the border. On that drive Babankowa heard the word “frostbite” for the first time.

The refugee crisis

Why did Babankowa have to walk through the snow? Why could he not simply turn himself in at the border crossing between the US and Canada? Why do refugees in their thousands keep wandering into Canada over the fields, and why do some of them die there? The Safe Third Country Agreement between the United States and Canada declares that any refugee crossing by land (though not by sea or by air) from the United States will be returned there. If you come by plane, you’re fine. If you come by boat, you’re fine. But not if you come by land, to a proper border crossing.

At crossings on the American-Mexican border there seems to be a working assumption that the solution to the refugee crisis is cruelty. In keeping with that assumption, agents separate children from their families and drug them in child prison facilities. At the moment of writing, US Attorney General William Barr has declared a plan to deny some migrants even the chance to post bail, keeping them indefinitely in privately-run prisons. And it is not simply the United States. In 2017, a 73-year-old grandmother from Menton, in south-east France, took two Guinean refugees to a police station to get help for them, and she faced criminal prosecution, five years in jail and a $30,000 fine as a result. But cruelty does not make effective policy. Over the past year, despite Trump’s bluster, the number of apprehensions of illegal entrants at the US border has risen from 40,000 to 190,000 with 30 per cent of the apprehended seeking asylum, up from 1 per cent a year ago. Cruelty only feels like order.

The quiet life

The crossing cost Babankowa his hands. After the agony of his thawing, his fingers blackened. They had to be amputated.

“But how can I work?” he begged the doctor.

The nurse encouraged him. “You’ll find work. You can do a lot of stuff.”

Here’s what saved Babankowa: celebrity. This is the 21st century after all. In Canada, Babankowa found that his story, muted everywhere else in the world, rang out. He gave interviews and posed for pictures. He reunited publicly and tearfully with the driver who had saved his life – name of Franco, a Polish immigrant, a Catholic who took in strangers on Christmas Day. If Babankowa had not become well-known in Canada he would almost certainly have been returned to Ghana. But because his story spread, his case became an example of danger surplus – meaning he would definitely be at risk if returned now, because everyone could read what he had said. So he could not be returned.

Babankowa safe in Winnipeg: he has lost his fingers to frostbite but has his refugee claim acceptance letter

Though he could never have known it, Babankowa had ended up in a country with a tradition of heroes consumed by the landscape: Atanarjuat, the Inuit hero who ran naked and bloody-footed across a field of ice; Franklin, the explorer in HMS Erebus, starving to death in search of the Northwest Passage; the Mounted Police having their horses eaten out from under them by black flies on the March West; even Terry Fox, his memory preserved in every school, who tried to run a marathon a day across the country on a single leg to raise money for cancer research and died before he could – all possess the same iconography, the struggle of individual heroes against an unendurable country. Now added to this list of names was Babankowa, the man who crossed through the snow to escape America.

Then came the moment for the real accounting, the reckoning with his family. He messaged Kamal on Facebook. “Don’t tell mom yet,” he told his brother. “Let me tell her.”

He told her that he was in Canada and safe, and she asked why he was calling from a hospital, and he had to tell her that he was probably going to lose his fingers. She started crying. What was there to say? What compensation could there be for losing your hands?

In the middle of the tears, to his surprise, there came a gentle lift. “Everything’s going to be OK,” his mother said while he sobbed. “Take heart. Be strong. Keep praying. Move on.”

Impossible to go forward but no way back.

Babankowa is a permanent resident in Canada now, on the path to citizenship. He leads a quiet Canadian life in St Norbert, one of the quieter neighbourhoods in Winnipeg. He has found a quiet job fundraising for Plan Canada International, a development agency, and he volunteers at a nearby hospital.

He kept his feet. During the summer months, he plays football with the Wasps, in the Manitoba Major Soccer League, and imagines playing in the Olympics, maybe the Paralympics, for Canada.

Remember, in your safe houses, what the dream of a quiet life costs.

Photographs by Getty Images

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Further reading

Canada resettled more refugees than any other country in 2018, but this UNHCR report shows how the number in camps or on the move still dwarfs the lucky few.

Seidu Mohammed’s story is not (yet) the subject of a book, but Nujeen Mustafa‘s is. It’s also worth watching her TedX talk for a reminder that refugees aren’t numbers.

Anyone in doubt about the extent and depth of homophobia in many West African countries should study this 2019 report, used as a source here by the BBC.