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 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…