First in a series of occasional articles examining how Trump’s ascendance and early moves have altered expectations and reality, here and abroad.
WINNIPEG, Manitoba — Of all places on earth, Naimo Ahmed found herself here, at the end of a 16,000-mile journey, inside a Salvation Army shelter as temperatures pushed well below freezing in this remote Canadian prairie city.
Her face, bright and quick to smile, belies the tragedy and turmoil she has witnessed in her 23 years. So does her smooth English — a language she labored to learn in her native Somalia when she was a young girl, still hopeful of a better life.
Crowded with her inside this impromptu refugee center is a little boy, just old enough to walk, who zooms around in a T-shirt that reads, “Built tough like dad.” His mother, a Ghanian immigrant, keeps one eye on her son and the other on the plate of food she has just prepared.
If the boy is missing his home, he doesn’t show it. He gives a high five to a Somali immigrant standing nearby. He squeals at the 12-year-old daughter of a man from El Salvador.
The kids are American-born. The parents are not.
Weeks ago, they were living in Atlanta. Denver. Small-town Indiana.
Now they’re in Winnipeg, newcomers to what is, for them, the strangest of lands, their American dream become a Canadian reality.
The number of asylum seekers making this border crossing has averaged nearly 500 per month since Donald Trump’s inauguration, which is more than twice the monthly average for 2016, and the pace is expected to increase as the weather turns warmer.
Propelled by fear — fear compounded after President Trump’s election and the start of the era of disruption, especially for immigrants, that he promised — they have fled north, walking miles across snowy fields, leaving the ghosts of their old lives behind, cars abandoned near the border, toys sitting unused in empty apartments. Drawn to America by the historic promise of liberty and opportunity, their guideposts now were the red lights flashing atop wind turbines, showing the way through the dead of night into a more welcoming land.
“USA,” Naimo said, “it’s no longer the land of dreams.”
Naimo is one of the more than a dozen refugees who slipped from the United States into Canada and recently shared their stories with the Globe; hers beggars imagining.
She was born in November 1993, just one month after a US special operations team engaged in a firefight in the Somalia capital Mogadishu that claimed the lives of 18 US military personnel and hundreds of Somalis, and would be memorialized in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”
The US role diminished after that deadly humiliation, but not the Somali catastrophe. A civil war has gripped the country for decades, with estimates of up to 1 million dead since 1991.
Naimo lived in a village on the outskirts of Mogadishu. She walked everywhere, often in fear.
Her young life was full of trauma, by her own account, which she reluctantly told over the course of several interviews and also included in her asylum application. Her father died when she was 4. Her sister was raped, became pregnant, and then was murdered by the man who raped her. Naimo was about 8, and among the lasting scars is a finger she lost when a bullet from the man’s gun struck her ring finger.
Her mother urged her not to go to school. Learning, she warned, was not worth the risk of being raped while walking to class.
“I used to insist,” Naimo says. “Because I loved going to classes. I enjoyed being in class and gaining a lot of knowledge.”
She dreamed of something better than living in fear. But the inescapable reality of life in Somalia means being trapped in cycles of tribal rivalries and violence. Naimo, a member of a minority clan, had the misfortune of falling in love with a young man from a majority clan.
He helped her learn English. They would watch American movies together, opting for dramas and action flicks instead of the romantic ones that were too risqué in their strict Islamic culture.
He would often bring DVDs of the Fox show “Prison Break,” and she would huddle over his small laptop to watch.
“I used to think that someday I’m going to be someone,” she says. “And this English I’m learning is going to help me.”
They decided to get married last July, even though such a union, across clan lines, was taboo.
During the day’s celebration, some in the wedding party arrived back at her house before she did. Her mother, her new husband, and several other family members were murdered in an attack by gunmen.
“Everything was orchestrated by her husband’s family, who never wanted this to happen,” said Odaro Omonuwa, Naimo’s attorney in Canada. “She was actually supposed to be a target.”
Some details of Naimo’s story could not be independently verified. But Abdullahi Sheikh Abukar — executive director of the Somali Human Rights Association, which tracks and documents casualties in Somalia — recalls the story Naimo described.
“The perpetrators were the same tribe of her husband’s from majority tribe claiming that ‘our dignity was thrown into dirty place and must be prevent happening this Marriage,’” he wrote in an e-mail.
The killers got away. Naimo had to escape, too. She was 22 years old and marked for death.
She hid in a basement for days while her aunt sold some of her land and hired a smuggler, who brought Naimo from Mogadishu to Istanbul.
When they arrived, the smuggler gave Naimo $3,000 — which, she figured, was money that her aunt had passed along — as well as a passport and a plane ticket to Ecuador.
“I came out of my country running. They were after my life,” Naimo said. “Someday, I’m praying to God, I’ll be stable and peaceful again. I won’t have to look around and see who is behind me.”
When Naimo arrived in Ecuador, a country with loose visa requirements, she joined a river of thousands of people from around the world who travel through Latin America with the hope of seeking refuge in the United States. Heading north from Ecuador, Naimo traveled through eight countries. She hired smugglers and crammed into hot buses. She went by boat and by foot, wearing water shoes that release rain and swamp water. She went for days sustained by only water fortified with sugar.
At the border of Colombia and Panama, she crossed on foot through the Darién Gap, which Outside magazine has called “the world’s most dangerous jungle” because it is “teeming with everything from deadly snakes to antigovernment guerrillas.”
“You might not believe it,” Naimo said. “But I walked for seven good days, crossing mountains and rivers and streams.”
In Panama, crossing a raging river after a rainstorm, she broke loose from the woman’s arms she was linked to, saved by a man who knew how to swim. She was taken through Nicaragua in a truck, crammed with 50 other people with no windows and only small holes to help them breathe.
Throughout the journey, she had only one destination in mind: The United States of America, a country she knew only by its reputation.
“It was a place where we were accepted,” she said. “The whole world, they accept the whole world. Whoever has a problem.”
She finally approached the US border near Matamoros, Mexico, in mid-October. In the early evening, the skies clearing after an afternoon of rain, Naimo crossed a bridge over the Rio Grande.
First, she had to pay a pedestrian toll of $1. A man from Ghana, she said, gave her the coins. She was out of money but a sense of happiness poked through her anxiety. Finally, she thought, she’d reached safety.
And then, as the border agent came into view, she uttered a sentence she’d been planning to say for months.
“I’m a refugee from Somalia,” she said. “I’m coming here to seek asylum.”
She soon realized that it would not be so easy. Many political refugees entering the United States are met with a gruff and sometimes militaristic bureaucracy; Naimo, arriving in the final months of the Obama presidency, was treated no differently.
She was immediately detained, like all those who show up at the border without the proper papers. Quickly, she felt under suspicion.
An agent from Homeland Security, she says, began searching her.
“I was wearing my hijab and shoes,” Naimo said. “She took off my shoes, my sweater, she took my hijab. I was just wearing jeans and a trouser. I was like, ‘No, please.’ . . . I told her this is not my culture, please. She was like, ‘No, you’re in USA. You have to accept it.’”
Naimo drew a distinction between those from Latin America who sneak across the border seeking economic opportunity, and someone like her — who fled a war-torn country and immediately presented herself to a border agent.
“I did not come from next door in Mexico. I came all the way from Africa. A land of a civil war, a lot of issues,” she said. “But what happened to me? I was detained. Like a criminal who is staying in the USA and did a bad thing to the government.”
“I felt bad. Seriously. I felt deep down bad,” she said. “All I did was ask for protection. You see?”
She was placed in a cold cell in a detention center in Texas and was fed a sandwich.
On Nov 8, she sat in a room with rocking chairs and green couches in the detention center outside of Austin, which is reserved for women and families. The room full of immigrants and refugees watched in disbelief as they looked at the small television screen as their 11 p.m. curfew approached and they were told to get upstairs, back into their two-person cells.
Donald Trump was on the verge of the presidency, a result that would be confirmed when they woke up the next morning. It would be further confirmed when a staffer at the detention facility met with them as a group and told them it would all be OK.
“Don’t worry about Trump,” he said. “He’s not going to deport you guys. You’ll get a fair hearing from a judge and nothing will happen.”
Everything they had seen in the news media about Trump’s campaign promises told them otherwise. Refugees at the center, Naimo said, felt sure that their claims for asylum were now less likely to be granted. They could be deported to the countries they had just fled.
“You think,” Naimo recalled, “‘I’m dead.’”
When Naimo’s aunt helped her flee Somalia, she gave her a phone number. She knew of one woman in the United States, a fellow Somali living in Minneapolis.
Naimo memorized the phone number and — after briefly, terrifyingly, forgetting the last four digits — called the number from the US detention facility.
“I told her where I am, and who I was,” she said. “She told me OK. No problem.”
After several weeks, a judge agreed to release Naimo, as is common for asylum-seekers who are not deemed a threat and who stand a decent chance of being granted asylum if they can prove the mortal risk of being sent back home.
The woman in Minneapolis sent a plane ticket, and soon Naimo was in a van, heading for Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. When she arrived in Minneapolis, which has the largest Somali population in the United States, she was surrounded by familiar-looking faces.
The woman told Naimo she could live with her for three months, enough time to get started in her new life.
“I didn’t know anyone. I was like, ‘What do I do? Where do I start? Where do I go?’ ”
Naimo went to apply for various social services. Food stamps. A work permit. Medical insurance, to help treat a persistent asthmatic condition. At every step, since her immigration status was still in limbo, she was denied.
She had no money to pay for a lawyer, which she needed to get her asylum claim in order. Fearing the hospitality from the woman she was staying with would wear thin, she didn’t feel like she had time to wait around.
But with a backlog of well over 100,000 cases, the wait time to schedule an asylum interview with an immigration case officer can take between two and five years, according to government data.
And getting that far is no guarantee. Some judges have a denial rate on asylum claims of nearly 99 percent. In 2015, only about one-third of the claims of asylum for those from Somalia were granted.
As soon as Trump took office and signed the executive order banning even visa-holders from seven Muslim-majority countries — including Naimo’s homeland — the situation seemed yet more hopeless to Naimo, even though the order was quickly stymied in the courts.
“One, I was a Somali. Two, I was a Muslim. Three, I was black. You see?” she said. “I was like, no. You can’t survive here. I couldn’t. I couldn’t at all.”
She knew she needed to find another way. Her journey north would have another chapter.
There is no guidebook on how to sneak into Canada. Most of it is word of mouth. Refugees who leave the United States for Canada are technically breaking Canadian law, attempting to exploit a loophole in a 2002 agreement between Canada and the United States that forces asylum-seekers to stay in the first country in which they arrive.
The agreement, however, only applies to ports of entry, like an airport or a border crossing post. If someone can cross the border and reach Canadian soil elsewhere, they are arrested by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, but are then allowed to come into the country, get a lawyer paid for by the government, and make a claim for asylum. In the first two months of this year, nearly 1,000 refugees have crossed the border this way — already 40 percent of the number that crossed during all of 2016.
The United States has been and may yet again be the major port for refugees. In 2016 it admitted nearly 100,000 refugees, about four times more than Canada. If and how Trump’s order will be implemented remains uncertain.
Asylum-seekers spend days or weeks studying Google maps for a pathway that skirts an official border crossing.
A safe house in Buffalo has been a staging ground for many fleeing to Canada. Refugees have been taking cab rides to a rural mile-long road in Champlain, N.Y. leading to an unprotected stretch of the border.
After flying into Grand Forks, N.D., Chinese immigrant Yongqi Zhang used his iPhone to order a Lyft, the ride-sharing service. Looking on a map, he picked a gas station off Interstate 29, at the last exit before North Dakota becomes Canada.
The driver, making small talk along the $84.99 ride, revealed that he was an off-duty police officer and had only recently started to do part-time Lyft rides for extra cash.
Zhang quickly made up a story. He said he was simply meeting a friend who was going to pick him up at the gas station later.
When the off-duty cop dropped him off, Zhang was surprised by his goodbye — and how unconvincing his story had been.
“The Canadian border is that way,” the cop told him.
In Minnesota, where Naimo planned her final trek to Manitoba, those hoping to move roam a mall filled with Somali merchants, asking around until they can locate a taxi driver willing to take them.
Early one afternoon in February, Naimo got into a cab in Minneapolis.
“Where do you want to go?” he asked.
“To the border,” she said. “Can you just take me to the border?”
The border was nearly six hours away.
For $300, the man agreed. She was joined on the journey by two other men from Somalia.
Naimo doesn’t know exactly where the taxi driver dropped her off. They wanted to avoid US border patrol officers, fearful they would arrest them or send them back.
After being dropped off, Naimo passed the Red River, which separates Minnesota and North Dakota, and kept going north. Off in the distance was a road that they believed was in Canada.
Naimo wore several layers, with a sweatshirt and a jacket to protect her from the prairie’s frequent blizzards and sub-zero temperatures. She had ankle-high winter boots on her feet and a knitted cap on her head. At times, her feet would sink in the snow, close to her thigh.
“We walk. Take a rest. Walk. Take a rest,” she said. “Sometimes I was like, I rolled myself. When I can’t even crawl, I roll. I tried every means just to reach to that highway.”
They kept looking, wondering if they had entered Canada. Eventually they came to the Maple Leaf Motel, which is just across the Canadian border. Lit up at night, it has American and Canadian flags hovering above it.
“It’s not in USA,” Naimo told her companions. “I think we’re in Canada.”
Justin Giovannetti, a reporter at the Toronto-based Globe and Mail, emerged from the motel at around 1 a.m. and spotted the group. Naimo was covered in burrs.
“She was exhausted, frightened, and in pain,” Giovannetti said.
He offered her a bottle of water, and she gulped it down. He offered the bathroom of his motel room, and she immediately went inside to bathe a frozen foot in warm water.
At the request of Naimo and her companions, he and a photographer also called the police.
When the RCMP minivan arrived to pick them up to take them to be processed for asylum, Naimo grew worried.
“Don’t take me to the US,” Naimo pleaded with the officers, who assured her they would not.
Within a minute of getting into the van, Giovannetti said, Naimo spit up blood as officers began preparing to drive away.
“The situation is getting a bit extreme here,” one of them said.
On a recent moonless night in Emerson, Manitoba, a tiny town just across the unprotected and mostly unmarked northern border of Minnesota, the wind was whipping across the prairie lands near the spot where Naimo crossed. The red beacons flashing from wind turbines were visible in the distance.
At 5 a.m., with the temperature at 26 degrees, three men from Bangladesh were huddled by a fence, near someone’s backyard. They had just crossed the border.
“Are we in Canada?” one of them asked a Globe reporter.
When informed he was, the man cried out. “Oh, thank God. At least we are safe now.”
They had just dialed 911, and a Canadian police car approached quickly. An officer got out.
“Are you cold?” he asked the men several times as he opened to door to his car.
He told them it was going to be OK. There were no chains. No handcuffs. They were as welcomed into Canada as they had felt suspected, or rejected, in the United States. The officer even helped the men load their luggage into the trunk of a police van.
Emerson is a town of about 700 people. It’s a place where everyone knows everyone, where you wave at every person you pass so you don’t hear grief from them later.
They are used to refugees crossing the border into their town. Just never in these numbers.
“As soon as Trump got in, literally within one week it was 21 instead of five or six in one night,” said Greg Janzen, the town’s top elected official. “We could see the effect almost immediately. . . . And we weren’t prepared.”
Doorbells sometimes ring at 3 a.m. Residents who go out for a morning walk are now sometimes greeted by African men who have just crossed the border, carrying suitcases. About half of the calls to the fire department are now related to people crossing the border.
One day in early March, 17 refugees, including a 16-month-old baby, were huddled in a shed near the town’s golf course. The town provided a van — normally used to take seniors to their doctors’ appointments — to transport them to the border checkpoint to be processed.
Another time, the town opened up a complex that usually houses the town’s 138-year-old curling club, to provide shelter for about a dozen refugees. Residents set up cots and offered to help feed them.
“We made tea. They asked for bread and Nutella,” said Barbara Piett, who helped that day.
No one died in this year’s winter conditions that any local officials are aware of, although some worry that they will find a body when the last snow melts. Two men from Ghana who crossed in December got disoriented and stayed in the cold too long. They lost almost all their fingers to frostbite.
There have been no reports of violence or vandalism, but some are starting to worry whether added security is needed. And if this many people are willing to come in the winter, what will happen when the weather warms?
“The goodness out of your heart runs thin after a while,” Janzen said. “If you did a poll six weeks ago, nobody would have really had a problem. Ninety percent probably said no problem. Now it’s probably 70 percent.”
And when they look across the border, into Minnesota and North Dakota, those living in Canada are still baffled that women and children are crossing the border in sub-zero temperatures.
“It’s hard to imagine the US not being a safe country,” Janzen said. “There’s no war going on there. As far as we know.”
Like just about every other refugee who comes to Winnipeg — Manitoba’s capital, about 70 miles north of the border town of Emerson — Naimo quickly found a support network that seemed to be lacking in the United States.
The Welcome Place — a center where 90 percent of the staff members are former refugees themselves, hoping to help the next wave of asylum-seekers — has counselors to help new refugees find housing and fill out their government applications.
“They say ‘Trump took over, and it turned my life upside down.’ Every single client says that,” said Nasra Hassan, one of the counselors. “ ‘I was afraid to be deported by Trump.’ They don’t say ‘the government.’ They say specifically ‘Trump.’ ”
Many refugees are housed at the Salvation Army on the outskirts of downtown, which earlier this year began converting some unused space into bedrooms for new asylum-seekers.
On Feb. 20, they had eight people. Two days later, that went to 25. By early March, they were at capacity with 90 people.
Refugees tend to stay for about three weeks, in a building they share with people with substance abuse problems who rely on Salvation Army services. Upon arrival, each person receives a voucher to claim eight items from the nearby thrift store. For some, it’s one of the first times they’ve ever needed a winter jacket, or closed-toe shoes.
Ahmed Abdullahi, a 29-year-old who fled Somalia after his father was killed, arrived about four years ago in Anaheim, Calif. He drove a taxi, often taking people to Disneyland.
His case for asylum, he said, kept being postponed. His next hearing is scheduled for this November.
Then he heard from friends that Canada was an option. He’d never seen snow, but he made the trek north.
“First I came to America, I was so hopeful. I had very big dream. In the end, I forgot all about those dreams,” he said. “Canada, it’s the land of opportunity. You know?”
Many of the people living here left remnants of their lives behind in the United States.
There’s the 20-something from China, who came over on a high school exchange program and had two years left for his bachelor’s degree in computer engineering. He rented a storage unit in Texas, leaving his laptop, clothes, and Honda Accord, before making the sudden decision to leave for Canada.
There’s the family of four — two parents on expired visas from Ghana and two kids, both US-born citizens. They left their home in Atlanta for a wedding in New York. The reception got a little rowdy, and the potential for police response spooked them.
They decided to make a spontaneous run for Canada. After a bus to Grand Forks, N.D., and a taxi toward the border, they got out and pushed a stroller across the icy snow.
Naimo has been looking for an apartment. She realizes that someone else probably needs her bed at the Salvation Army, and she’s expecting to get government assistance for rent and food. It’ll amount to about $730 per month.
She’s hoping to get her work permit, and she’ll soon be getting Canadian health insurance, so she can go to the doctor and get her asthmatic condition examined more fully. The condition recently caused her to cough up blood, much like it did when she crossed the border, and she had to be hospitalized, according to her lawyer.
Within the next several weeks, she hopes to walk into a government building in downtown Winnipeg and present herself before a tribunal that will decide whether to grant her claim of asylum. Those hearings used to take place once a day, but now, with the influx of claimants, they are heard twice a day.
Naimo’s lawyer — who in the first three months of this year handled nearly 50 cases, the same amount as all of last year — said he’s “very confident” her claim for asylum will be granted, which would put her on a pathway to becoming a permanent resident of Canada and, eventually, a citizen.
Naimo wants to go back to school. Maybe she’ll be a doctor. Or a social worker. Something that she can do to give back to her new country.
Once her life is more stable, she wants to try to locate two of her siblings. She thought they had died during her wedding day attack, but she has since learned that they lived and are now in Kenya. Her face, with cheeks that pinch up toward her soft brown eyes, bursts into a smile.
“It wasn’t easy,” she says. “I went through a lot. . . . Maybe sometimes, someone is going through worse than me.”
“Maybe I’m safe now. I’m better. Alhamdulillah. God is great. God is great.”
Matt Viser can be reached at email@example.com