Asylum seeker finds safe haven

THREE years ago Semhar Yemane's 19-year-old brother was snatched from a café to do military service- and she's never seen him since.She said: “He had just stopped for a snack on his way home from school.

By Tracey Sparling

THREE years ago Semhar Yemane's 19-year-old brother was snatched from a café to do military service- and she's never seen him since.

She said: “He had just stopped for a snack on his way home from school. The cars came and took him. They take every young person because it is obligatory to do military service once you are 18, but they don't respect the law and they take you if you are 15.”

As this courageous teenager speaks of her family, the tears she feared would flow, can be stemmed no longer.

Earlier this year, the tensions in her homeland of Eritrea in Africa got so bad that the 17-year-schoolgirl fled as an asylum seeker, taking her little sister Ruth who was just 13.

Eritrea emerged from its long war of independence in 1993 only to plunge once again into military conflict, first with Yemen and then, more devastatingly with its old adversary, Ethiopia. Today, a fragile peace prevails and Eritrea faces the gigantic tasks of rebuilding its infrastructure and of developing its economy after more than 30 years of fighting.

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To escape, their father's best friend took the girls to neighbouring Sudan where they were handed to an agent for travel to Europe. Semhar said: “After staying in Sudan for a month we went to another country, I don't know where we were because I didn't step outside while we waited for our passports. I think it was an Arab country because the women I saw out of the window were wearing veils. It was a frightening time. I don't know how long we stayed there, I was more worried about our situation than the days passing.”

The girls flew into London in April, and were taken straight to the Home Office, then stayed in a London hostel before being sent to Ipswich. Today Semhar is carving out a new life, as she waits to hear if she and her sister will be legally allowed to stay.

She celebrated her 18th birthday last month and was delighted when her new Ipswich friends presented her with flowers. She works as a volunteer on the reception desk at Ipswich Refugee Council, where staff have helped her, and arranged for Ruth to attend Chantry High School. Semhar is also learning maths and hopes to meet up with other people from Eritrea in the UK, in future.

“I really like it here” she said, but she also misses her family dreadfully.

“I know if I write to my grandmother the authorities will make her pay lots of money if they find out I am in the UK, so it is better that she doesn't hear from us. I miss her a lot. She is 72 and getting old, but she is very tough.”

She added: “All the people I have met in Ipswich are quite understanding and I think they know about the problems in Eritrea.”

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The Refugee Council in Ipswich has a 'talks team' that visits schools and organisations to explain about refugees and asylum seekers and clarify myths. If anyone is interested in being part of the team, training will be provided. Contact Dagmar Grafton on: 01473 297900.

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