WINNIPEG — Razak Iyal was given a warm embrace as he officially became a Canadian citizen, more than six years after nearly freezing to death walking across the Canada-United States border in Manitoba.
It was a low-key citizenship ceremony but one steeped in hope, gratitude and assurance.
Iyal, 40, was joined by a group of close friends as he logged on last week for the virtual event, which included dozens of others sitting in front of a judge to swear their allegiance to Canada.
As the ceremony concluded with the playing of "O Canada," the Ghana-born Iyal revelled in his new Canadian status.
"At that time, I (felt) like a Canadian because reciting the national anthem means everything," he said Monday in an interview.
The day concluded with a few photos and some food. Iyal was gifted a Canadian flag by a woman and friend whom he calls his "Canadian mom." He held onto the flag as he took his oath.
"I'll make sure I protect this flag ... because this country saved my life, and it gave me everything that I want."
Iyal was among a wave of refugee-claimants who snuck into Canada from the United States in 2016 out of fear of being deported back to their home countries.
He met up with Seidu Mohammed, 30, another man from Ghana, at a bus station in Minneapolis. The two men took a bus to Grand Forks, N.D., then a taxi to an area near the border.
On Christmas Eve, they trudged through snowy fields in the dark for hours as temperatures dipped to -30 C. They were not dressed for such a trip and suffered severe frostbite before they were noticed by a trucker after crossing into Canada.
They spent weeks recovering in hospital. Iyal lost all his fingers but kept his thumbs, while Mohammed lost all his fingers and thumbs.
The two were granted refugee status in 2017. Iyal said he fled Ghana because his life was threatened in a dispute over the inheritance of his late father's property.
Iyal and Mohammed, who were once strangers, said they remain close like brothers.
Mohammed celebrated becoming a Canadian citizen March 6.
"After we took the oath, and the judge said you are you are all now Canadian citizens, I was excited about that," he said.
"It was a long wait, but it was worth the wait. And now we are here in a new chapter."
Mohammed sought asylum on the basis that as a bisexual man he would face serious physical harm if he had to return to Ghana.
Since arriving in Canada, Mohammed said he has enrolled in school to finish hiseducation. He then hopes to go to post-secondary school to study business and sports administration.
He also co-founded Manitoba African Cup of Nations, a non-profit organization that hosts soccer events for Black youth.
Iyal said he works and also hopes to attend university in the future. He has focused his energy on trying to bring his wife to Canada.
The men's stories made international headlines resulting in offers of help from various immigration and newcomer groups. Iyal and Mohammed said they strive to provide the same hospitality to others.
"When we come here, the people help us. So it's a time for us also to give back to the community and continue doing this as a Canadian," said Iyal.
The two said they have made it their mission to provide advice and support to other asylum seekers so they don't meet a similar fate.
"This is a difficult journey that we went through, and we don't want anybody to go through the same thing," said Mohammed.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 20, 2023.
Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press