Conflict & Justice

Habib Zahori was scared to seek asylum in the US. So he pushed a rickety bicycle through snow to get to Canada.

This story is a part of

Seeking Security

This story is a part of

Seeking Security

Habibforweb.jpeg

Afghan journalist Habib Zahori made a cold trek across the US-Canada border on foot and on bicycle. "I remember thinking, wishing, 'Oh God, please, please send someone to arrest me!’ " 

Credit:

Courtesy of Habib Zahori

Habib Zahori was deep in the forest, his face and fingers going numb. He was lost, freezing and growing desperate by the hour.

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Like hundreds of refugees, Zahori was risking his life to sneak into Canada.

But Zahori was not fleeing some war-torn country. He was running away from the US.

Zahori worked as a journalist back in Kabul, Afghanistan, and his reporting on the war made him a target. In 2014, he came to the US for graduate school. And as he was preparing to go back home at the end of December 2015, he received a phone call from his mom. She said he was getting death threats and his life would be in danger if he returned.

At the time, the US was heading into a presidential election year, with Donald Trump as the leading Republican candidate. Zahori says a surge in anti-Muslim rhetoric in the US scared him. He was worried about what would happen if he tried to stay in the US — so he decided to flee to Canada.

He bought a small, beat-up bicycle, and a friend drove him to the border town of Houlton, Maine.

When they got to an unmanned area, Habib said goodbye and started pedaling toward the forest.

This is a first-hand account of his journey:

“When I reached those woods, I got off my bike and I started walking into the woods.

And there were these piles and piles of snow everywhere. I’d never seen that much snow, that high.

I think I was the only living thing walking there, with my bicycle… like, pushing my bicycle.

And I couldn't see anything.

And I took out my GPS. My GPS stopped working. And my phone stopped working. I couldn't use anything. I didn’t know where I was.

The other thing was that I’d read this book when I was still in Afghanistan: "Into the Wild." 

[It’s] the story of this American, a young American guy, who just decided to go to Alaska, away from "civilization." And he ultimately died there. That book made me scared of snow, of trees.

And as I was biking, images from this book [just kept] coming to me.

And I was miserable. I was feeling miserable.

[At one point], I was deep in my thoughts and I suddenly heard dogs barking: Five, six dogs just started chasing me. I don’t think they ever saw a guy on a bicycle before.

But the good thing was that I was on the steep point of the road and I let the bicycle take me as fast as it could. And that was the only way that I managed to survive that dog chase.

And I remember thinking, wishing, ‘oh God, please, please send someone to arrest me!’ You know, I was ready to be even deported or go to jail. I just wanted that misery to end.

[That’s when] I heard the siren. And then I saw the police car.

I immediately stopped, just got off my bicycle and I raised my hands. And they arrested me.

And they put me in the back of their car.

I remember thinking that I was thirsty. I was so thirsty. My mouth was like a dry wood. And I couldn’t swallow even.

This one police officer opened a bottle of water and he held the bottle of water to my mouth and I drank from it.

I felt so relieved. I felt so so relieved that finally I was somewhere warm and that I was safe.

When my friends hear my story, they ask me why did I do it? And they ask me if I would do it again if I have to.

And I tell them, ‘Hell no! I will never do that again.’

That was one of the worst days of my life. And I'm someone who grew up during a civil war. Then the Taliban. Then the Americans. And I've seen so much. But I've never felt as miserable as that day.

But I was so desperate.”

Habib Zahori is now living in Ottawa. He has been granted asylum in Canada.