I fled Ethiopia in 2006 after the government in power at the time was accused of fraud after the elections the year before.
Protests ensued and government forces resorted to violence – 193 people died as a result – and started a crackdown on dissenting voices, turning my country into an authoritarian police state.
At the time, it was extremely dangerous to speak out against the injustices that were happening around me.
When I did, supporters of the government turned on me, becoming increasingly threatening. It got to a point where fleeing was my only option.
Unfortunately, I had to leave my wife and my one-year-old son in Ethiopia because my life was in immediate danger. I chose the UK because I had already been and had secured a multiple-entry visa.
Leaving my family is still one of the most painful things I’ve ever had to do. Not a day went by that I didn’t think about being reunited with them.
I knew trying to settle in the UK would be the best option for me because I’d grown up listening to the BBC, watching the Premier League and supporting England in the World Cup – but most importantly, because it would give me sanctuary and provide a safe place for my family.
My journey from an asylum seeker and destitute refugee to a proud British citizen and global refugee campaigner is not one that you hear very often
I bought my plane ticket and within two days, I left Ethiopia. I had no idea where I would be staying but I had some money with me and a whole lot of hope.
A lot of people assume fleeing is the hard part, but for me – the most difficult bit was yet to come.
The day after I arrived, I went straight to the Home Office first thing in the morning to claim asylum. The process was very confusing because I didn’t have someone to help advise me.
I spent the whole day there, being interviewed every now and then and waiting until I was told to go. I left after being given temporary accommodation nearby and a follow-up appointment in a few days’ time.
When I returned for my appointment, I had a couple of interviews but was then escorted to a different room.
When I asked what was happening, I was told that I was going to be detained until a decision was made on my case. By the end of that day, I was sent to Harmondsworth Detention Centre where I spent just over two weeks.
Detention was one of the worst experiences of my entire life. In Ethiopia, I had been imprisoned many times, as well as beaten by police and security forces – but I never thought I would be in detention in 21st century Britain.
It was like I was a number instead of a human being. I felt so low, like my life was turned upside down again.
In the detention centre, I shared a small room with another person. Each of us were cautious and nervous as we didn’t know each other. For me it was more frustrating as I was still new to the system. The security guards wouldn’t look into my eyes. They laughed at me when I asked questions or complained about stuff. They were simply disrespectful. This was not the Britain I had envisaged.
By the time I was released from detention, I was depressed. For years, I suffered destitution, hunger and loneliness through the immigration system. It’s definitely not a five-star hotel life like some people make it out to be.
Like all asylum seekers, I wasn’t allowed to work. The only option I had was to keep empowering myself. I read and would write. I spent my time educating myself, as well as actively participating in debates and conversations about issues related to asylum and immigration, human rights and governance, especially in Africa. I often wrote on the BBC’s Have Your Say.
It would be eight years since leaving Ethiopia that I would finally be reunited with my family in the UK
One moment in particular will always have a special place in my heart – when I attended Community Organising training in 2008, organised by Citizens UK. I was keen to be an effective campaigner, and while researching I discovered a five-day residential training program in leadership. I applied and after many email exchanges, I was accepted.
This training gave me the tools to help with my campaigning advocacy, as well as allowing me to meet many lovely people. Some of these new friends even helped provide me with shelter, love and hope.
It reminded me that there are many generous people in this country who are doing everything possible to support asylum seekers and refugees. I wholeheartedly believe that Brits are welcoming and compassionate, and I feel blessed to have had the support of many wonderful people in my life.
Over this time, I mostly lived in Cardiff and Swansea – sometimes with support from the government, vouchers or good friends. Life wasn’t easy but it was especially tough because I was still away from my family. After four years since first applying for asylum, I was finally granted leave to remain.
Though I now had a legal right to stay in the UK, my family were still stuck in Ethiopia for four more years. It would be eight years since leaving Ethiopia that I would finally be reunited with them in the UK. This is because we had a checklist of things to fulfill, like my wife learning English and sitting an exam.
Of course, we kept in touch through technology the whole time and I actually met up with them in Tanzania a year before they were granted spouse and dependent visa, but there was nothing like finally being safe in the UK together.
My wife was always frightened as I was politically active here in the UK and, I believe, closely monitored by the agents of the regime in Ethiopia. She was totally disconnected and lived a private life to avoid any risks.
Finally, the day for a reunion arrived. It was the morning of 20 June 2014. Waiting for them at Heathrow airport was so emotional. It was the longest wait ever. When we met, we all cried – due to joy and disbelief. We couldn’t believe it was real
That reunion was very emotional for all of us, but we finally felt like we could truly rebuild.
Throughout all of the challenges in seeking asylum in the UK, I never despaired, and I was always hopeful. During my journey to sanctuary, I was awarded a Human Rights Defender Fellowship by the University of Nottingham’s Human Rights Law centre and studied international human rights law. This allowed me to travel again, which meant I have been to many universities to participate in courses – including Harvard.
I have always tried my best to contribute in any way I can. This led me to become one of the Games Makers at the London 2012 Olympics, meaning I helped with translation and also gave warm welcomes to dignitaries – allowing me to meet Prince Charles.
I now work as a director of UK Welcomes Refugees, as well as a Churchill Fellow in 2018. This year, I even became an NHS volunteer responder during the peak of the first coronavirus wave.
My journey from an asylum seeker and destitute refugee to a proud British citizen and global refugee campaigner is not one that you hear very often – but I am very proud of how far I’ve come.
Now more than ever, we must never forget our empathy for those in need.
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