My Family and I Were Detained at Gunpoint and Then Held for Hours at the US-Canada Border. I’m Afraid It Will Happen Again.

In 1991, I fled my home in Somalia to escape the civil war there. After nine years of living in uncertainty as a refugee in Yemen, I won a lottery to immigrate to America. I couldn’t believe my luck. I couldn’t stop smiling.

It was confusing in the beginning. I didn’t understand English or basic customs, but I adapted pretty quickly to life in my new country. It was here that I met my husband Abdi, a fellow Somali immigrant. We have four wonderful children, ages 7, 8, 10, and 16. They love school, soccer, and video games. They have never known any other home.

The day I became a citizen in 2009 was one of the proudest days of my life. Still, it’s hard to be away from everyone I left behind. Being able to see my sisters who live closer ­— one in Canada and the other in Maine — connects me to my family and brings me great comfort.

Sagal Abdigani and Abdisalam Wilwal
Sagal Abdigani and her husband, Abdisalam Wilwal

But recently, my family went through something terrible at the border while coming back home to America from Canada. I no longer feel the safety and security I thought I had found in my new home. My children are traumatized and we are all too scared to travel again.

In March 2015, we were coming back from a visit to Saskatchewan to see my sister and her family. When we got to the border to cross into North Dakota, officers suddenly surrounded our minivan and pointed guns at the entire family. My children, who had been sleeping, woke up and started screaming, afraid we would be killed. The border officers took my husband away in handcuffs in front of my children, who were sobbing.

We didn’t know where they took Abdi, and they wouldn’t tell us. We didn’t know if we’d ever see him again. They took the rest of us to another room. I asked if I could take my children home and come back for my husband or if a family member could come take the children. “No. You’re all the same,” they said to us. “You’re all detainees, including the children.”

My children were very scared, and there was nothing I could do to soothe them.

“Maybe they’ll kill us after sunset,” my 8-year-old daughter said. I can’t forget these words. For hours, the guards wouldn’t give us anything except for a bit of candy, even though I told them I had real food in the minivan for my kids. After about six hours, they gave the children hamburgers — but nothing for me.

All this time, I had no idea what was happening to my husband, and no one would tell me. I became convinced they had killed him. My phone had been taken away, but my son still had his phone. He gave it to me, and I called 911 to report that we were being held against our will and that we feared for our safety. But a border officer realized what I was doing, grabbed the phone, and spoke to the 911 operator. He must have convinced her not to send anyone because no police came to help us.

“Maybe they’ll kill us after sunset,” my 8-year-old daughter said.

Two officers then took my then-14-year-old son to another room, patted him down, and told him to take off his clothes for a strip search. He refused to undress, and they didn’t force him, but he was still very upset by the experience. It still hurts me to think about it.

After more than 10 hours, we were suddenly free to go. Seeing Abdi alive was overwhelming. I learned that his experience was even worse than ours: They had kept him handcuffed without food or water for hours until he passed out, and they had to call an ambulance. Officers questioned him about us, about his work, and about his religion. They wouldn’t let him speak to a lawyer.

When we got back to Minneapolis, we went to our local FBI and Department of Homeland Security offices to report what had happened. We learned that Abdi was on a terrorism “watchlist.” This shocked us because we don’t know why the government would put Abdi on such an awful list — and it won’t tell us. I’ve learned that a million people are on this watchlist, and that the government doesn’t need to have reliable information to put someone on it.

We have filed forms to get Abdi off the list, but we haven’t heard anything back. It seems extremely easy to get on the list based on wrong information — especially if you’re Muslim — and virtually impossible to get off.

Our daily life is generally good. My kids do well in school, and our oldest will be applying to college this year. But I’m too scared to travel now to visit the family I miss. I’m convinced the same thing — or worse — will happen if we try. None of us can get that terrible day out of our minds. My children still have nightmares and are now terrified of police.

My oldest son has started talking about becoming a lawyer to help people who have been harmed like we were. I want to believe that America is a place where justice is possible, and I want him to believe this, too. That’s why my family is suing the government over what happened to us and over my husband’s struggle to clear his name.

I want to go back to believing that my family and I can travel and come home safely, without our own government’s officials harming us.

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Shirley D.

As a resident of Minneapolis, I consider this family my neighbors. Although we've never met to my knowledge, we could have and might still. Our religions differ but both carry the message that we should love our neighbors as ourselves.


Wait until "they" gain control of city governments and try to enact Islamic Sharia law. Don't think it won't happen, Louisiana is a prime example of religion taking political control. There is a reason they don't have "counties" but instead "parish districts". They used caltholic law to set up the state government 200 years ago. Religion is invading our politics on all fronts, conservative or liberal. It is a problem.


To 'Law': Incorrect. The New Orleans Legal System was based on the French Napoleonic Code, I believe it was called.


America was based on racism and will always be like that. America from day one has been based on racism , discrimination, injustice, bigotry, hatred, inequality, aggression, corruption, and violation of human rights. America from President #1 to President #45 will always be the same! When I say America, I do not mean the American people, but I do mean the government or the system.

kris mccleery

I'm so sorry this happened to you ... Come live in Canada, there is slightly less hate here and a MUCH better leader... You would be welcome here! Peace!

Doug K

I'd move there if I could afford it. Stories like this make me very ashamed.


I'm so ashamed of our country.
I am deeply sorry your family went through this despicable and atrocious process.
Many of us are working hard to eliminate Islamophobia, xenophobia, religious intolerance.


I was Peace Corps Physician for Hargeisa 1965-1967. During a vacation my wife and I rode in the back of a trade truck from Hargeisa to DjiboutI. At the border we were searched and the Somali soldier found a box of tampons in our luggage. Apparently because they were roughly the shape and size of bullets, the soldier became quite agitated and called over the French legionnaire who guarded the same border. It was soon established that they were dealing only with "alapta dumerka" (female equipment) and we were allowed to reboard the truck. We did not experience any of the unprofessional conduct that you describe, and were able to dismiss the episode as an amusing cross-cultural misunderstanding, tempered by discipline and courtesy. Good luck with your court proceeding, which I hope will have a similar peaceful result.


Something similar happened to my family crossing the US Canada-border in Blaine WA without the guns. However we were held for hours with my baby and 10 year old. Every time my husband travels he is questioned and at times put into a room for hours. I know he's on a watchlist of some sort. No criminal history and works for the county. It's all because of his faith and we know it. May Allah protect us.

Barb Davis

I am so sorry for your experience. Please know that many of your countrymen are a palled at this treatment. I hope the ACLU is able to get some justice for you and get this kind of treatment stopped for ever. I will pray for your family


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