After he was whisked off a Toronto street and jailed on an immigration warrant in 2010, Abdirahmaan Warssama began marking off the days on his cell wall.
But days soon became weeks, and weeks became months, and months became year after year after year.
“You lose your hope. You lose track of time. I was there for six years, but it felt like 12,” said Warssama, a refugee from Somalia who was finally released from the Lindsay maximum security prison on Dec. 18, after 67 months behind bars.
His offence — he continually refused to sign a paper saying he “volunteered” to return to the war-torn country he escaped from some 26 years ago, a country those same authorities deemed too dangerous for border officials to accompany him, and a country where he lost his parents and two sisters in the relentless violence that continues to engulf his homeland.
In an interview with the Toronto Star, Warssama, 52, described the heavy toll his prolonged incarceration has taken on him. He says he was soon worn down by the constant lockdowns, the social isolation and threats from other inmates there for serious crimes.
“Life in prison was hard. But it saved my life because I didn’t have to go back to Somalia. There’s no law in Somalia, and I would be dead. I’m happy I survived,” said Warssama, his grin revealing the two missing front teeth he said were knocked out by other inmates.
“The physical wounds can heal, but when they torture your emotion, you can’t heal that damage.”
Warssama finally won his freedom at a detention review tribunal hearing prompted by a Federal Court order in November to overturn an earlier decision to continue his confinement. The tribunal took into account his lengthy imprisonment and the slim chance of officials being able to deport him to Somalia any time soon.
Warssama was released after the tribunal accepted a $6,000 bond posted by his younger sister, Kiine, whom he hadn’t seen since his arrest in 2010. As part of his bail conditions, Warssama must live with his sister and report to border officials every two weeks while they figure out a way to deport him.
Kiine, 50, a machine operator, also supports and cares for her mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law in a three-bedroom apartment in north Etobicoke.
Despite his new-found freedom, Warssama, who says he suffers post-traumatic stress disorder and diabetes, is still struggling. As a person facing a deportation order, he doesn’t have health coverage and can’t legally work to help his sister out.
“I feel a free man, but there is no real freedom. I can’t do nothing. I still have bad dreams that border officers would just dump me at the Kenya border with a bottle of water,” said Warssama, who used to drive a cab and work for a car rental company at Union Station.
On the day of his release, Warssama had an emotional reunion with his sister in the parking lot of the Canada Border Services Agency’s immigration holding centre in Rexdale, where he was dropped off.
“You are a different person,” he recalls Kiine saying. Along with the missing teeth, the man in front of her had more grey hair, looked a lot older and was 30 pounds lighter.
Although it was already evening by the time she picked him up, Kiine insisted on a haircut as the first order of business.
“She said, ‘I don’t want to see your big Afro hair. We are going to a barbershop on Weston Rd. right now,’” said Warssama, who fled from Mogadishu in 1989 and was allowed to stay in Canada on humanitarian grounds.
Kiine, added Warssama, wanted to give him a fresh start from a troubled past that culminated in criminal convictions for offences including harassment involving a former girlfriend and assault involving his sister. Those convictions ultimately made him inadmissible to Canada.
At the dinner table that evening, over a homemade meal of traditional Somali food, the siblings caught up with what they had missed in each other’s lives in the five-and-a-half years Warssama was behind bars.
The two are the closest among the seven surviving siblings, including two now in the Netherlands, a brother in England and two sisters in Nairobi.
“I told her what happened to me in jail. She told me what happened to the family outside, which friends died,” said Warssama. “You know. Before I was jailed, Prince William was not even married. Now he has two children. A lot has changed. A lot has happened.”
Warssama said his sister is a feisty woman who once reported him to police for breaking a release condition when he drank alcohol while out on bail on one of his earlier charges.
Lawyer Subodh Bharati, who took on Warssama’s case two years ago and successfully argued for his release, has already filed an application for his client to stay in Canada on humanitarian and compassionate grounds. A decision is pending. Meanwhile, Bharati is also trying to get him medical help and a work permit.
Warssama admits things can sometimes be discouraging.
“As a human, you need to see the light in your life. I don’t see that. I already feel 12 years behind the world. Maybe it’s better for me to go back to jail so I don’t see nothing.”
But Warssama said he made a promise to himself when he left Lindsay and gave the expansive superjail a final look: “I will keep peace and never come back again.”