Yemi Hailemariam: #freeandytsege

Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 43 seconds

Everyone has a story. When the worst happens – your partner is kidnapped at an international airport and put on death row – what can you do? Meet Yemi Hailemariam who is making sure the plight of Andy Tsege is not forgotten. Interview by Nicola Baird Photos by Kimi Gill

Yemi Hailemariam is trying to push the UK government to make Ethiopia free her partner Andy Tsege. (c) Kimi Gill Photography for islington faces

“I’m in a very challenging situation,” says Yemi Hailemariam calmly in the Prisoners Abroad meeting room, which is lined with donated books and dictionaries to be sent on to British nationals held in foreign jails.

Yemi, 49, is not exaggerating. She’s the partner of British national, Andy Tsege, who was kidnapped at Sana’a International Airport, in Yemen, on his way to Eritrea in June 2014. For several weeks his whereabouts were not known. He was then illegally detained in Ethiopia, where he’s been for more than three years. He was convicted at an unlawful trial in absentia and is still on death row.

For much of that time Yemi hasn’t known which prison Andy was in, the state of his health, or been allowed to contact him.

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Andy Tsege, 62 was born in Addis Abba. He was granted political asylum in 1979 and has lived in Britain since then. Andy remained a prominent Ethiopian politician, outspoken about Ethiopia’s human rights record, until he was illegally detained at the behest of the Ethiopian government in June 2014. More details in this news report from the Guardian.

Yemi Hailemariam runs the #freeAndyTsege campaign to help free her partner. You can help by signing the petition. (c) Kimi Gill Photography for islington faces

“I last heard from Andy on 14 December 2014 in a phone call at 8am, out of the blue. It’s the only time I’ve spoken to him since he was kidnapped in an international airport, Yemen – which at the time had a functioning government. Then we didn’t know the location of his prison. It was very stressful. He asked to speak to the kids but everyone was crying. I said, because you don’t know who is listening, ‘We’re working hard, just stay strong.’ He asked me to mange the kids’ expectations. I said ‘I am, don’t worry.’ That was the last time we spoke. Ever since I’ve been trying…” says Yemi.

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It is impossible to imagine Yemi, Andy or their three children’s pain, including twins who were just seven when he was taken, at this unlawful separation. But Yemi says, “Mine is a problem you want to talk about. You want to get as much help as you can. It’s a political problem and the UK government are not doing much.”

Yemi’s efforts to push Britain to better look after its citizens, and insist on the release of an illegally held British citizen, hasn’t always worked. She’s had meetings – and promises – from many politicians and Foreign Office staff including the British Ambassador in Ethiopia; Foreign Secretaries Philip Hammond and then Boris Johnson; and Tobias Ellwood, who is now Ministry of Defence. Ethiopia’s refusal to let Yemi visit is clearly designed to cruelly frustrate.

Running the #freeAndyTsege is a huge task for Yemi, who also works in IT. She’s managed to get the media interested with interviews and news items on Radio 4 Today, the Guardian and others. While back in April (2017) to mark Andy Tsege’s 1000th day in prison Lush created a special ‘Buy One Release One’ bath bomb which helped raise awareness.

Islington Faces was introduced to Yemi because she attends a support group at Prisoners Abroad, which is based in Finsbury Park. “Prisoners Abroad don’t question the case, they just look out for a person’s welfare and champion British nationals who are forgotten,” she says. “There are so many cases of people sitting on remand in prison, it’s shocking what you hear.”

To communicate with someone a Government is holding illegally is extremely difficult. “The UK has never been able to manage a visit on their own terms. It’s always on the Ethiopian government’s terms,” says a frustrated Yemi. “It’s lonely in prison. And it’s isolating for those left behind – the effect is identical, this feeling of helplessness that you are separated and far from loved ones.”

Yemi is a big character. She was born in the US where her Ethiopian parents were graduates. Then, when she was 1 her parents returned to Ethiopia.

“In 1979, when I was 13, there was an exodus of people. Andy went to the UK. My family went to Cameroon for a year and then back to America.” As a result Yemi went to university in the US – but a love of British TV shows convinced her to take a job in Cork, Eire for a year. “I loved the European lifestyle and saw I could transfer to London,” she says. The move to the UK may have been deliberate, but settling in Islington was just chance. “When I first arrived the company put me in a hotel on Pentonville Road so that’s why I looked for a flat in the Angel area,” she explains. She now lives in Clerkenwell.

Yemi Hailemariam and family need you to sign the petition to #freeandytsege to push the UK government to make Ethiopia free her partner, Andy Tsege. (c) Kimi Gill Photography for islington faces

Places Yemi Hailemariam likes in Islington

  • The Little Angel Theatre is my absolute favourite. I think I enjoyed it more than the kids did.
  • Skating at the Sobell Ice Rink featured a lot. I made lasting friends from that time and we still get together.
  • Finsbury Park area is the other place I have a lot of memories.
  • At Angel Central I used to obsess over Tchibo, the shop that changed its stock weekly. That was replaced by Butlers. Also all my oldest daughter’s reading was done in Borders when it was open.
  • I like the Ethiopian restaurants in Cally Road, such as Marathon, 193a Caledonian Road, N1.

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Turns out that being based in Islington made life a bit easier when it came to trying to publicise Andy’s plight incarcerated in an Ethiopian jail.

“Being in Islington has been a huge help. I’ve an amazing support system like the teachers, head and chair of governors at Hugh Myddleton Primary School. The MPs, Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry, are amazing, and so are the Islington Gazette and Islington Tribune. The council even passed a resolution to say Andy needs to come home.” Yemi also points out that: “The chance of meeting connected people – journalists, politicians – here in Islington is high, and then there’s the proximity. It’s quick to get to Westminster for meetings. It would be much harder if I lived further away, like Manchester.”

 

Please do read more about Yemi Hailemariam’s campaign to free Andy and bring him back home safely to London. You can find out more about the campaign to #freeAndyTsege and see how you can help at http://freeandargachew.com

Over to you
If you’d like to nominate someone to be interviewed who grew up, lives or works in Islington, or suggest yourself, please let me know, via nicolabaird.green at gmail.com.

If you enjoyed this post you might like to look at the A-Z  index, or search by interviewee’s roles or Meet Islingtonians to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola