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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The beauty of our Constitution is the Safeguards it creates for all citizens. We salute the flag we hug the flag we believe in the flag as it embodies the RIGHTS of each and every being. Countless have died for the red white and blue it has the blood sacrificed by individuals, by families who have lost a loved ones friends etc.

Our hope and the hope of a nation lies on our freedom. Its states


We the people will overcome the bigotry the hate the segregation of race. For those that belueve in a states a nation under God. It is not a Christian a Muslim a Sikh a Hindu a Buddist Alien or Atheist God bit a Gid for every being.

You fight the fight not for any Muslim but as an American an individual who resides in United States of America for all of us.

We are with you.


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As always, law enforcement agents of our government at all levels only pay attention to the Constitution when they feel like it and when it's convenient.


Your children should be terrified of police, (and the [in]justice system). We all should be. NEVER call cops, or voluntarily introduce them into your life. You're fortunate you either have the money or however you got support for a lawsuit. Many of us don't.

Sylvia Nichols Heck

This is only because of the retrumplican government which has begun to emulate Hitler's Germany. I am appalled for my country as should all Americans be. And if you wish to respond with a hatefilled phrases, don't. Your ancestors came from another continent, perhaps for political reasons. You owe it to their memory to welcome our newcomers in their honor.




I know that immigration made this country what it was before Donald Trump took office-great. Unfortunately, immigrants have always faced prejudice when they first start to immigrate. Know that your children will have an easier time than you. I live in the Boston area, where there were signs "No Irish need apply" in ritzy Beacon Hill. My grandfather was called a WOP (without papers) and given the job of shoveling the coal into the furnace. Gradually people are assimilated and accepted. I am sorry you were detained.


I am a white ordinary mom of a disabled adult child. The local government so called authorities, after 16 years of county services for my daughter without incident, knocked on our door on a beautiful August day in a picture perfect classic neighborhood. Two local police officers and one social service county employee stood looking at me through the screen. I was not expecting them, did not invite them and had little to no clue why they were there. To gain entry the s.s. employee told me all sorts of lies about what a Judge ordered over my daughter so that they could gain entry and take her from her home and neighborhood. I had no money for an attorney. They scared the shit out of both of us. They interrogated me for two hours. The cops took hidden photos. The SS employee finally said to my daughter "You have a nice home here. Do you feel safe?" She said yes. Within seconds without explaining why he told us he was taking her into custody and ordered me to pack her a bag! I did hoping cooroperating might help the outcome. She was escourted in the back of an ambleance where a parametic stood by and tried to block me from hopping on and saying good by. I forced him out of my way and told my daughter while she was crying and shaking in tears and terrified! "God will always be with you."
You do not have to be Muslim, or black American or Somalian to be treated like shit from over zealous power hunger government authorities. I DID NOT SEE HER FOR 268 DAYS. The visit that day was illegal. Keeping her was illegal. After 268 days we saw each other five times with a therapist. Now I have not seen her since 2014. These authorities still keep her, do not give a dam that she wants to see her mom and do everything in their power to keep us apart. Not one attorney who works for low income people like me will take a case like this. If I had money for an attorney this would of never happened. Since I didn't have $$ then and not now either they continue to hold her hostage. I have no one to turn to. I have complained and filed documents of the illegal actions and the state doesn't care.


Then please go back to where you came from. WE, in North America, DO NOT want you here. Go back and fight for your own country like the patriots in 1776 did! Now those were PATRIOTS, unlike the BULLSHIT in todays world.


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