Between Everything and Nothing

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Begin with sound. Begin with light. Seidu Mohammed stands on the side of the road, unsure whether he is alive or dead. Beside him the frigid highway points back toward North Dakota—unbroken, unchanging. An abiding darkness has settled over everything. There are no other cars, no trucks, no traffic. The wind swallows every noise. He wonders if it is better to cross at night. It is less likely they will be seen, yes, but it is so much colder. Seidu—twenty-four, dressed in a sweatshirt and several jackets—turns and faces an empty field, covered in deep snow, intense in its whiteness, leading north toward the border. Somewhere on the other side of this frozen landscape is the town of Emerson, Canada. Beyond that, freedom. Or other kinds of tragedy.

Razak Iyal stands beside him, staring at the barren stretch of field, taking in the inconceivable distance, unsure if they should go forward or turn back. The thirty-four-year-old adjusts his hat. Both men murmur to each other—their voices captured by the biting wind—before finally descending into the field of snow. In a moment it covers their feet. A moment after that it is up to their knees. Walk toward the light, they have been told. Stay on the left side of the highway. If a vehicle approaches on the right, it will be the immigration patrol. Hide, lie on the ground. All you need to do is get across the border. Then ask for help. The journey will only be one half-hour.

Both of them keep walking, searching for the lights of the border. The land glistens before them, but the border is nowhere in sight. They glance at each other, knowing they are lost, but all they can do is put one foot in front of the other, marking their way through the deepening drifts.

Although they can still make out the shape of the highway somewhere on their right, there is no sign of anything up ahead, no faint glimmer of movement, only the cold reach of the wind.

Everything has become cold and black, and the snow—up to their waists now—makes their hands and feet numb. One walks ahead, the other—ten, twenty yards behind—follows. Sometimes there are skeletal trees to hold onto, but just as often the land mysteriously opens up and there is nothing but the unsettling flatness of the fields, cut off at the horizon by the black sky overhead. It begins to snow again, and the wind, rushing at thirty miles an hour, cuts across their exposed faces, burns the places where their clothes do not hide the skin.

By then Seidu has fallen behind. Once or twice a vehicle approaches along the highway and both he and Razak are forced to lie on the ground, waiting for it to pass, the headlights crossing over them, then vanishing into a blur of silver.

Each time they are forced to lie down, the cold creeps further into their clothes, through their jackets, in the spaces between their gloves and pants and shoes. Seidu’s eyelids have begun to freeze. Tears run down his cheeks and turn to ice. He wipes at his eyes with his bare hands, then calls out to Razak for help, following the sound of the other man’s voice.

One hour, two hours later they are lost, having disappeared completely into the snow.

What do you do when you have nothing left? Nowhere to go? What kind of person are you forced to become?

In the spare bedroom of his brother Kamal’s house in Ohio, Seidu quietly put his things into his backpack, going through his belongings, searching for clothes and the documents he would need. He placed his soccer cleats on the bed, then checked the Minneapolis weather on Kamal’s laptop once again. The forecast said it would be between eight and ten degrees Fahrenheit on the day he’d arrive, December 23. He had never been anywhere that cold before, and so he began putting aside extra sweatshirts, a light jacket, an extra pair of gloves, as many socks as he could fit into his bag.

Somehow Kamal got the money for the trip north the next day—taking out a loan from a local bank. He drove Seidu to the bus station near the center of Youngstown, bought him a bus ticket, and waited with him until the bus arrived. The gray and silver lobby seemed sterile, silent, like the waiting room of a hospital. The two brothers had been apart for eleven years before Seidu had arrived in the States. Now they would be separated once again.

The men smiled at each other, knowing they would not see each other again for some time.

Everything is going to be okay, Kamal said. Just be careful.

After an hour, the bus approached. Seidu looked at it hesitantly, then turned to his older brother and stood.

Don’t worry. We’ll see each other again soon, Kamal said. Seidu gave his brother a long hug, then climbed onto the bus. The pneumatic doors closed with an exultant sound, signifying the end of one world and the beginning of another.

Outside the glossy pane of the bus windows, there was a tumult, a clatter—the wind rattling the windows as if some shapeless, unidentifiable darkness were in pursuit. By the border of Indiana, he was certain that the catastrophe he had attempted to flee had somehow followed him, that someone had his name and photograph and was only waiting to see where he was going, what he intended to do.

You must go, a voice told him. Keep running. Do not stop moving until you are safe.


Even as a boy, Seidu Mohammed was aware that life in Accra, Ghana, was a series of contradictions, and in order to survive, you had to keep moving to avoid every obstacle, every incongruity. Once known as the Gold Coast, Ghana was a former British colony that did not receive independence until 1957. With its extensive manufacturing, mining, and shipping operations, it was a country that had always struggled with its identity—first as a community of adjacent tribes oppressed by the British, then as an independent nation with a series of unsettling military coups, then as a democracy approaching the new millennium with a well-documented history of bribery, political cronyism, police corruption, and drug-smuggling.

Born in Nima, Accra, in 1993, Seidu was a quiet though energetic child. As a boy, he recognized some of the disparities that surrounded Nima—the open sewers that carried human excrement past residential dwellings. Muddy orange roads that were sometimes overtaken by piles of garbage. Children, entire families who migrated from the rural parts of the country, who slept in wooden sheds or out on the street. At a young age, he looked about his neighborhood and decided he would devote himself to football, practicing every day after school, certain the sport would be the thing that would help him transcend the difficult circumstances of his family’s economic situation.

The year Seidu turned ten, he surprised all of his classmates when he volunteered for his elementary school’s football team. Before class and during recess, he would often sit and watch the other boys playing football, studying how they moved, what they did with their bodies. In the shadows of the Khanda Estate school building, with its failing roof and collapsing plaster walls—the paint fading and peeling in the shape of gladioli—he dreamed of being a professional football player, a champion like Ghanaian superstar Abedi Pele. He never played football at school because he knew if he got his school uniform dirty, he would be beaten by his teacher.

Playing for the interschool team finally gave Seidu the opportunity to show his classmates and his community just how committed to football he was. On the day of the match, he was assigned to defensive midfield, the position he most enjoyed. He looked up, saw his older brother, Kamal, sitting in the stands, and grinned. Although the game was a tight one, Seidu worked hard to keep the ball away from his team’s goal, sending it flying back each time it came near. He began to get tired, but stayed focused, trying to follow every instruction his coach shouted from the sideline. Seidu’s team eventually scored and won 1–0. When the game was over, Seidu looked at the sidelines again and saw Kamal, standing on his feet, cheering.

Over the next ten years, Seidu advanced from local youth teams through the Division One league. In 2014, at the age of twenty-two, he was playing for the Nima Lenient International Football Club when he was asked to try out for the Criciúma Football Club in the city of Criciúma, Brazil. It was the first time he had been invited to go overseas for soccer. By then, Seidu was ready to make the leap to playing for a team outside of Ghana.

Criciúma was a highly regarded South American team that competed in the national league of Brazil; the club was famous for winning the Brazil Cup in 1991.

Tryouts would begin in June and last several weeks. Seidu would be accompanied to Brazil by the Lenient FC team manager; both the manager and the team owner would benefit financially if Seidu’s contract were sold to the Brazilian club. After playing for so many years, Seidu felt extreme pressure to succeed on behalf of his family, his team owner and manager, and his community.

As he landed in Brazil, he was certain his life was only beginning.


Over two days, Seidu rode the bus through five midwestern states, tracing the shape of the country through its arterial roads and highways. Shadows flashed past upon the bleary window like faded images from an out-of-date movie. The snowy terrain, the long expanse of uninterrupted expressways, cities that appeared and receded into the late December grayness. The towering, tattered billboards along the road cited biblical passages condemning homosexuality and abortion, and then a few miles later there were advertisements for adult bookstores. The meek-looking aluminum houses, all the different kinds of trees, the water towers in their muted colors, the automobiles abandoned along the side of culverts, the old steel bridges and discolored flags, the other people on the bus with their strange manners, all of it was so unlike home.

Twice he changed buses, and was able to grab some chips and a bottle of Coca-Cola. He thought about calling his brother, wondered if the government had a way to listen to the phone lines, and so decided against it. He climbed aboard the bus again and tried to get some sleep. In the back of the vehicle a young woman was singing. A child was crying. Over the last two years, ever since he had left Ghana, Seidu had traveled, almost entirely by foot or bus, through South and Central America. He had seen the same faces again and again; all over the world, the forlorn, the stubborn, the dispossessed were forced to wear the exact same expression.

He had seen something online days before, a Facebook post that said if you could make it across the border into Canada without being stopped by the US Border Patrol, you could apply for asylum on the other side, regardless of your status in the United States. The post had said that the Canadians were more fair than the Americans, and even offered free legal representation to noncitizens. All he had to do was get across.


Ten hours later the bus pulled into another city. From behind the smudged window, Seidu could see the glass exterior of Minneapolis rising against a bleak sky—just before the bus quickly descended beneath the shadows of high-rises and office buildings.

Cold settled in once he stepped off the bus, first hitting him in the face, then burning his hands. He buried his fists into the folds of his coat as he asked for directions. The Minneapolis bus station was a busy place on the afternoon of December 23. People were hurrying to visit loved ones—the working poor, other migrants, the dazed, angry faces of Americans, shoving bags and luggage, carrying packages, dragging children by the hand. In a parking lot he asked for directions again and headed south.

He had called two days before to get a room at a nearby Motel 6, but when he arrived at the rundown building in a seemingly abandoned part of downtown, he discovered the room was two hundred dollars a night, which was much too expensive. He was also worried about being reported by the clerk, concerned that if he paid in cash and used a fake name he might be found out. He stepped back outside onto the dimly lit street, then crossed back again to where he’d started.

Upon feeling the cold air making his lungs tighten, he decided to return to the bus station, to see if he could find a bus to take him closer to the border.

No one knew him in the city, but he felt certain that if he stayed, the authorities would find him. Better to keep moving than to stop and wait, to be found out, to get caught and sent back to Ghana.

It was not yet snowing, though everything was daunting, unclear, faint.


All his life Seidu carried a secret with him that threatened everything. Ever since he was a child he had always been attracted to other boys. At six, he developed strong feelings for Jamal, a boy from his neighborhood whom he sometimes played football with. Often the two boys would take a ball up to the pitch and practice or simply sit and talk. The feelings they had were unclear, yet powerful. Both eventually realized they were interested in more than a typical friendship.

Seidu was also aware of the danger and social stigma of being gay or lesbian or bisexual or transgender in a devoutly Christian and Muslim country. Homosexuality of any form is illegal in Ghana, with mere accusations of being gay often leading to public beatings and harassment by other citizens and the police, sometimes ending in torture and even death. Once indicted, LGBT people in Ghana are subjected to a minimum of three years in prison, though sentences are often much more harsh. Seidu had heard stories of other men accused of being gay being dragged from their houses, beaten by their neighbors, and later brutalized by the police.

One morning, after his soccer trials in Criciúma, Brazil, had been completed, he found himself in bed with another man. Lying beside this stranger, Seidu enjoyed the sound of unfamiliar birds outside the window, their names not yet known. The light slanting through the window, bright and warm. The feeling of someone else’s breath upon his cheek. He could imagine a life of freedom, of acceptance, of quiet possibilities. Then there was the knock at the door and the unexpected voice of his team manager shouting, calling him a series of terrible names, after which nothing would be the same.


The bus station was nearly empty at 9:30 p.m. Seidu took a seat on a grimy metal bench and looked around. For a moment, the world revealed itself in all its amazing, tired complexity. The fluorescent lights looked false. The glow of the vending machines, with their insistent hum; the overhead screens announcing departing buses, flickering regretfully; someone across the way coughing, sounding as if they belonged in an emergency room. The only other black person he saw was a round-faced man sitting alone, staring into the distance. He could tell by the man’s appearance, by his body language, by the color of his complexion, and by his clothes—two jackets, a hoodie, and blue jeans—that he was African, that he was not from Minnesota, and he too was not used to the frigid weather. The man looked to be in his early thirties, with wide shoulders and a closely shaven beard and an amiable expression. Something about this other man’s face, his features, seemed familiar. Seidu decided to say something and so stood up and crossed the bus terminal.


The other man looked up and said, “Hello.”

The accent was recognizable.

“Where are you from?” Seidu asked.


Seidu smiled. “I’m from Ghana, too.”

Both men grinned widely. From there, they began to speak in Hausa. The other man began: “Menene sunanka?” What’s your name?


I’m Razak.

Someone—some unbeliever, some journalist, some political pundit, some sociologist, someone who did not understand the silent realm of migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees, someone who had never fled their home, someone who did not understand the bizarre coincidences, the signs and markings of being an individual thousands of miles from the country you knew—would think this meeting was entirely improbable. Only consider the tens of thousands of asylum seekers who enter the United States each year. But, having made the long odyssey, first from Brazil, then to Mexico, then to the States, having met émigrés from other African nations, including Ghana, all along the way, having heard the familiar tongue, the language of their homeland, during their internment in Mexican and US detention facilities, having seen others who, like them, were all searching, the fact that both men spoke the same local dialect, that both men were Muslims, that both men were from the same country, the same city, the same neighborhood of Nima, seemed like a marvel and an inevitability. It made perfect sense that they would find another lost countryman to help them make their way on this, the final part of their journey. Because it soon became clear that both of them were trying to cross into Canada.

“Nada ka?” Razak asked. Where are you going?

I’m going to the Canadian border, Seidu replied.

Razak smiled. I’m also going to the border.

Seidu asked, Who are you waiting for?

Nobody. I’ve been sitting here since this morning, trying to come up with a plan.

Seidu nodded. It occurred to the two men that they might be able to make it to Canada together, just as each had relied on companions, fellow asylum seekers, and other strangers since first leaving their homes years before.

Seidu thought, Okay. We can do this. We can make this journey together.


Outside the bus station, a black taxi with no identification on its doors pulled up beside the two men. The driver rolled down the passenger side window and asked where the two men were going. The driver’s face was unreadable, hidden by a dark baseball cap.

They told the taxi driver that they wanted to go to the US border.

“Grand Forks,” the man said knowingly. From the tone of his voice it sounded as if he had made the trip before.

Both men were surprised, not knowing the name of the town in North Dakota where they were supposed to be going.

“Each of you need to give me two hundred bucks,” the cab driver said.

Seidu and Razak felt this man knew what he was doing and did not ask any questions. At any moment, they could be stopped—by police, by an immigration officer, by an overzealous Trump supporter—so the decision was made without any other discussion. Razak climbed into the front of the cab beside the driver while Seidu climbed into the back.

The taxi driver, face still shadowed by his hat, asked for the money right away. Eager to be off, the two men handed it over. Then the driver pulled away from the curb.

“How long does it take to get to the border?” Razak asked.

“Four hours or so,” the driver answered, looking back at the road. It had begun to snow, adding to the large drifts that had already accumulated along the city streets. Neither Seidu nor Razak had seen so much snow before. Even in Ohio or New York it never snowed like this. In Minneapolis, the snowflakes themselves looked larger, like paper cutouts, turning the urban sidewalks into hillocks of inordinate whiteness. In the end there was just too much of it. The buildings, the parked cars, the stop signs, all of it seemed to dissolve into immobile shapes. Passing along the edge of the city, the black cab navigated among the colossal drifts and finally took a ramp onto Interstate 94, heading north and west.

Others had come this way before them, the driver assured them. He mentioned driving Ethiopians and Haitians to the border only a few days before. These asylum seekers had exploited a flaw in the US–Canada Thirty Party agreement, which allowed migrants who crossed into Canada on foot and presented themselves to the Canadian authorities the opportunity to apply for refugee protection, regardless of their immigration status in the United States. The recent election of Donald Trump and his proposed shifts in US immigration policy had transformed the upper Midwest, and one of its northernmost cities, Grand Forks, into a borderland that migrants had begun to pass through with more and more frequency, with the hope that Canada was more welcoming.

Both men listened and nodded at each other, glad to hear they were headed in the right direction.

Everything around them began to fade to a somnambulant blur, a territory of suburban sameness, the houses growing farther and farther apart, the intersecting rings of the Twin Cities dissolving into interrupted fields of fluorescence and then forests, appearing and disappearing in circular permutations beneath the highway lights. The car’s heater continued to roar as the temperature outside dropped to eight degrees Fahrenheit, then six, then five as they drove farther north.

Passing over a bridge, both men watched the flurries as they continued to fall. The taxi slid and swerved once or twice. In the distance, up ahead, the highway seemed to fade beneath the accumulation of ice and snow. Razak looked out the passenger side window as the cab maintained its erratic progress, hopeful the vehicle’s momentum would carry him far from the difficulties of the past.


Before they knew it, three and a half hours had passed within the confines of the taxicab. Razak and Seidu remained silent at the beginning of the journey, then began sharing stories about how they had arrived in the United States and the paths of their individual journeys. Both men had been born in the neighborhood of Nima in Accra, both had been forced to flee to Brazil, both had survived the dangers of traveling through Central America, both had been detained in the same Mexican immigration detention facility, both had presented themselves at the US port of entry in San Ysidro. Both men had faced the systemic deprivations and ignominy of lengthy detainment in the United States, both had lost their asylum pleas, and both were certain they were about to be deported. An eerie calm engulfed the cab as it hurtled along the highway. In the front seat, Razak prayed. When he finished, he kissed the pocket-sized Koran his friend had given him many years before, then quietly put it away.

It was around one in the morning when a green and silver sign appeared along the side of the road, announcing their approach to Grand Forks, North Dakota. Sometime later, perhaps a half-hour or more, the taxicab pulled to the side of the road. Neither Seidu nor Razak had any idea where they were. In reality, the car was parked along the side of Interstate 29, somewhere north of the unincorporated town of Joliette, North Dakota, many miles from the US–Canadian border.

The cab driver told Razak and Seidu how to proceed, that they should stay away from the right side of the highway where there was a river and where border agents were known to patrol, that they should go to the left side of the highway where the open fields led north. Look for the lights of the border. Hide yourself in the snow whenever a vehicle passes. It will only be twenty minutes to get across, a half-hour at the most. Together both men thanked the cab driver and began to put on their gloves and hats. Outside it looked quiet, calm, as if the entire world had gone to sleep. The display on the car dashboard said it was four degrees Fahrenheit. Seidu looked over at Razak, who had begun to zip up his coat.

The two men climbed from the cab. It was unlike anything either of them had seen before: a frozen wasteland, cold and shimmering, extending in every direction. Seidu and Razak began to walk toward the left side of the highway. Wind shook the cab as it slowly pulled away.

Everything before them—the unbroken sky, the bleakness of the icy terrain—seemed treacherous. But on the other side of those fields, everything would be different. The other world Seidu had dreamed of for so long existed just beyond the edge of his peripheral vision. Soon it would open up before him in unequaled glory.

Wednesday, July 15, 2020