This summer, Mentesnot Mengesha is walking an amazing 100 miles barefoot within Newham to fundraise for BDCA and support families in need across our borough.
Mentesnot is a former refugee who fled Ethiopia during civil war 30 years ago and settled in Newham to build a successful new life. Read his inspiring story!
Can you tell us a little of what life was like in Ethiopia and how you came to Newham?
Thirty years ago, Ethiopia was at the peak of a civil war that had been fought for decades. I was born and raised during this war and was active in opposition politics as one of the leaders of the secondary school student movement, and eventually ended up in prison. I saw many of my friends being taken from our prison cell and killed by the military regime of the time, the Derg. Although I was lucky and was released, I was not safe – it was assumed ‘once the enemy of the State you are always an enemy of the State’. So, when the opportunity came, I fled the country to seek refuge in the UK and ended up in Newham.
I found a great welcome here from so many people. I will never forget the late Joan Farrell, an amazing woman who lived in South Plaistow who I met via the United Reformed Church at Barking Road. She took me under her wing and invited me for my first Christmas lunch in the UK! Thanks to her and many others at Renewal Programme and elsewhere since, I was able to integrate into the community and Newham is now my ‘home away from home’!
In your 30 years in Newham, you’ve had a varied career. Can you tell us a bit more about this?
As a refugee myself, one cause I have always been passionate about is supporting refugee communities. I was one of the first people involved in setting up a Newham Refugee Centre in Manor Park and have chaired the Newham Refugee Consortium, to give just two of many examples.
Beyond this, I have had the honour to be involved in a wide range of other roles. These range from helping to found and chair the Ezra Artists Group, to serving as a governor at two Newham primary schools, and presenting Spectrum Radio’s Amharic service – where I interviewed the then Immigration Minister Barbara Roche – MP and many other notable figures and politicians!
I have been especially honoured to serve the people of Newham in two other areas. First, Ann Easter invited me join The Renewal Programme as a member of the Board of Management for two years. Second, I was appointed to be a Non-Executive Director for Newham University Hospital NHS Trust where I played a strategic role for eight years. It has been a privilege to give back to the community that welcomed me 30 years ago and has supported me ever since.
We hope that your story will help inspire others who have come to our borough from challenging environments. What advice would you give them from your own experience?
My advice to those recently come to Newham in challenging situations of their own is this: please focus on the positives and keep going! Wherever there is despair there is also hope. But we can only conquer our challenges by being determined to rise from failure to success, to hope from despair, to joy from sorrow. Even if you feel you are struggling in uncertain waters, keep sailing on for a better future for our children.
During the last 30 years, in what ways has life changed in Newham?
I have been encouraged to see so much regeneration and new infrastructure in Newham over the years. However, the disparity between haves and have nots is getting worse day by day. To see homelessness, absolute poverty of children and their families today is really disturbing. And it is morally and politically unjustified, especially when some of the richest multi-billion financial powerhouses are headquartered just a few miles away.
Nobody is born to be poor; I truly believe this. So it must become the responsibility of all of us to narrow down the wide disparity between the poor and the rich. Let us give all our children opportunities to fully participate and share their gifts.
You have generously volunteered to walk 100 miles barefoot to raise money for Bonny Downs and support our neighbours in need. Can you tell us more about why you’ve decided to do take on this challenge?
Recently, I witnessed a young black boy, walking with his father in shoes that were utterly worn-out and falling apart, near a dentist’s surgery in Plaistow. It was like something from Victorian times.
But I believe that all children in Great Britain in the 21st century should have a decent childhood, with a right to dignity, able to lead their life just as happy children. And I have a vision for the future that no child will be walking to school in a visible manifestation of poverty – with their shoes falling apart.
By coming together, I believe every one of us can make that vision a reality. By dreaming big and acting at grass roots level, we can all have an influence and do small things that add up to big rewards.
I hope you will join me and support this positive vision for the future by sponsoring my walk. I hope that it will inspire others to take on their own challenges too. I am also hopeful that it can, in some small way, help generate further discussion on how we can eliminate child poverty in Newham. I strongly believe that this is doable if we are all prepared to take action!