AS HE STOOD IN FRONT OF THE BORDER that separates Mexico from the United States, a strange mix of emotions overcame Yahya Samatar.
One of those emotions was joy. Only three months earlier, Yahya had been forced to flee Somalia after receiving death threats from members of al-Shabaab, the local offshoot of al-Qaeda, and now – after completing a grueling journey that had taken him across the Atlantic and through South and Central America – he was about to arrive to the place he had always hoped to call home: the United States.
But even though Yahya was happy, he was also overcome by anxiety. He had no way of knowing if his next move would turn out the way he wanted, and even though he hoped with all of his might that his efforts had not been in vain, there was just no guarantee that that would be the case.
As he inched his way to the border, Yahya Samatar couldn’t help but feel those two emotions thrash within him. When he finally got to the crossing, he took a deep breath to steady his nerves and walked towards an immigration officer.
“I don’t have a visa,” Yahya told the officer. “But I’d like to apply for asylum in the United States.”
Just a few minutes later, Yahya was behind bars.
“First they put me in a very cold cell at the border, and then I was taken to a maximum security prison where I spent time with murderers and drug dealers,” he remembers.
Despite recommendations against this practice, Yahya was forced to stay at the detention centre throughout the duration of his asylum application, which lasted seven months and 10 days.
“I didn’t have access to Internet, so I couldn’t access anything to make my case very strong and I couldn’t get supporting documentation to take to the court.”
It was November of 2014, and Donald Trump hadn’t officially announced that he was running for president yet. Barack Obama was halfway through his second term at the White House, and yet, Yahya’s situation – like that of thousands of immigrants trapped in detention centres across the United States – was grim.
As the months passed, Yahya couldn’t help but feel sad. As far as he could tell, that feeling came from the fact that he had chosen to live in a country that wanted nothing to do with him.
DURING THE SEVEN MONTHS AND 10 DAYS that Yahya spent at the detention centre, he had good reason to think that his application for asylum would be successful.
After all, while he was in Somalia, Yahya had used his position as a humanitarian aid worker and human rights activist to fight against al-Shabaab, a terrorist group vying for control of war-torn Somalia.
“There were many young people joining militia groups and al-Qaeda groups, and I was trying to stop them by creating opportunities for them to reintegrate to the community,” Yahya says. “We provided free education and free vocational training classes, which can give young people an opportunity to work, so they can support their livelihoods and go back to the community.”
For Yahya, this community organization was necessary, as Somalia was lacking a strong central government, and no one was taking responsibility for social services. This created a void that pushed more and more teenagers to join militias and terrorist groups.
Over the years, Yahya’s project helped keep dozens of young Somalis from picking up arms. This was an incredible feat, which obviously upset some members of one of the world’s most radical terrorist groups.
“Everybody wants to take the children to fight for them so what I did really upset them,” Yahya says. “Because of this, I lost family and friends, and I have been targeted by the people in all the groups: government, clan militias and al-Qaeda.”
When the threats and the violence became unbearable, Yahya decided to leave Somalia. It was August of 2014, and his first destination was Ethiopia. Then from there he made his way to Brazil, where he embarked on a perilous land journey that took him all the way to northern Mexico.
It was a “long and difficult journey” across nine countries, which he hoped would come to an end in the United States.
But in the summer of 2015, after spending seven months and 10 days in a detention centre, Yahya found out that his asylum application – and his dream of making a new life for himself in the United States – had been denied.
“That was very tough, man,” is all that Yahya says about that.
IT WAS 6 AM, AND EVEN THOUGH IT WAS THE MIDDLE OF AUGUST, the North Dakota morning seemed darker and colder than usual. So too did the Red River, which speeds across the border between the United States and Canada like a living highway of mud and water.
As Yahya looked at its chilly waters, he was again overcome by anxiety.
“Maybe I’m going to die in the river,” he remembers thinking as he got ready to take the plunge.
Yahya was well aware of the dangers of trying to swim across the river, but he also knew that he had exhausted all of his options. He had been released from the detention centre two weeks earlier, and was scheduled to be sent back to Somalia in the following weeks.
“I was waiting deportation, and I didn’t have the proper papers to stay in the United States, which meant I couldn’t study, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t do anything,” he says.
So instead of resigning to certain death in Somalia, Yahya took his chances with the Red River on a cold August morning.
“It’s very difficult to be taken back to that moment,” Yahya says. “I didn’t know what was going to happen, but luckily I made it.”
He emerged from the river covered in mud, and walked into Emerson, a small town on the Canadian side of the border. There, he got someone to call 9-1-1. Once again, Yahya turned himself in to immigration authorities, telling the border patrol agent that he wanted to apply for asylum in Canada.
It was the exact same plan that he had deployed more than seven months earlier when he was trying to get into the United States, but this time, the outcome was very different.
“From the beginning, people treated me well. When I came, I didn’t have anything. I was wearing just my shorts. But the border guys gave me a CBSA uniform to wear, which I still have to this day in my home in Winnipeg.”
A month later, in September of 2015, just over a year after he had fled Somalia, Yahya was given permission to stay in Canada as a protected person. This means that he can legally live and work in in the country without fear of deportation.
“When the judge told me he was granting me asylum, that moment was one of the most beautiful memories I’ve had in my life,” he says.
A year and a half after arriving, Yahya is 34 years old and lives in Winnipeg. He’s studying English and continues to work as a community organizer, using his human rights background and his personal experience to provide legal assistance to the growing number of asylum seekers who are crossing into Canada from the United States.
While he’s quick to state that his crossing occurred while Obama was still in the White House, he also says that Trump’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants and his anti-immigration rhetoric are causing more and more people to cross into Canada from the United States.
“I’ve been helping the refugee claimants who crossed the border in the dead of winter, and one of the guys I met had been in the US since 2012, but he left because things got worse after Trump came,” he says. “It seems like a very scary situation in the United States right now.”
Data seems to back his claim. According to statistics recently published by the Toronto Star, in the first two months of 2017, 1,047 asylum claims were made in Quebec alone—which is 43 percent of the total number of claims made in all of 2016. In the whole country, this number escalated to 1,700, and as the weather gets warmer, authorities are concerned that more and more people will make the dangerous journey across the border from the US to Canada.
As Yahya sees the direction in which the United States is heading under Donald Trump – travel ban and immigration crackdown included – he feels no desire to go back in the near future.
But then again, when he reflects on his past experiences, he also says that he’s never felt welcome in the US.
“As a Somali, the one thing I want to emphasize is that the travel ban existed for us before Trump. For years it’s been almost impossible for Somalis to get a visa to go into the United States.”
“But even though the new ban doesn’t change things for Somalis, banning refugees and other immigrants from Muslim countries just feels like it’s a kind of discrimination.”
And because of that, Yahya is happy that things turned out the way they did, and that he finally ended up in Canada. Even though the journey here has been incredibly long, it’s allowed him to finally find a place to call home.
“I’m doing what I was supposed to do. I’m very passionate about working with the community and supporting other people, and here I found the peace and support to do that,” he says. “I believe that in the next few years, I will be able to make a difference and contribute back to the community.”
Vancouver, March 6, 2017
This profile is part of an ongoing series that tells individual stories of people from Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq who were banned from entering the United States by Donald Trump’s original executive order. While federal judges had halted the original ban, on March 6, 2017, a second version was signed by the President, renewing travel restrictions for citizens of six of those nations.
Learn more about Not Welcome and read other stories here.