Estimated reading time:6 minutes, 43 seconds
Everyone has a story. When the worst happens ‚Äď your partner is kidnapped at an international airport and put on death row ‚Äď 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
‚ÄúI‚Äôm in a very challenging situation,‚ÄĚ 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‚Äôs the partner of British national, Andy Tsege, who was kidnapped at Sana‚Äôa 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôt 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‚Äôs 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.
‚ÄúI last heard from Andy on 14 December 2014 in a phone call at 8am, out of the blue. It‚Äôs the only time I‚Äôve spoken to him since he was kidnapped in an international airport, Yemen – which at the time had a functioning government. Then we didn‚Äôt 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‚Äôt know who is listening, ‚ÄėWe‚Äôre working hard, just stay strong.‚Äô He asked me to mange the kids‚Äô expectations. I said ‚ÄėI am, don‚Äôt worry.‚Äô That was the last time we spoke. Ever since I‚Äôve been trying‚Ä¶‚ÄĚ says Yemi.
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It is impossible to imagine Yemi, Andy or their three children‚Äôs pain, including twins who were just seven when he was taken, at this unlawful separation. But Yemi says, ‚ÄúMine is a problem you want to talk about. You want to get as much help as you can. It‚Äôs a political problem and the UK government are not doing much.‚ÄĚ
Yemi‚Äôs efforts to push Britain to better look after its citizens, and insist on the release of an illegally held British citizen, hasn‚Äôt always worked. She‚Äôs had meetings ‚Äď and promises ‚Äď 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 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‚Äôs 1000th day in prison Lush created a special ‚ÄėBuy One Release One‚Äô 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. ‚ÄúPrisoners Abroad don‚Äôt question the case, they just look out for a person‚Äôs welfare and champion British nationals who are forgotten,‚ÄĚ she says. ‚ÄúThere are so many cases of people sitting on remand in prison, it‚Äôs shocking what you hear.‚ÄĚ
To communicate with someone a Government is holding illegally is extremely difficult. ‚ÄúThe UK has never been able to manage a visit on their own terms. It‚Äôs always on the Ethiopian government‚Äôs terms,‚ÄĚ says a frustrated Yemi. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs lonely in prison. And it‚Äôs isolating for those left behind ‚Äď the effect is identical, this feeling of helplessness that you are separated and far from loved ones.‚ÄĚ
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.
‚ÄúIn 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.‚ÄĚ 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. ‚ÄúI loved the European lifestyle and saw I could transfer to London,‚ÄĚ she says. The move to the UK may have been deliberate, but settling in Islington was just chance. ‚ÄúWhen I first arrived the company put me in a hotel on Pentonville Road so that‚Äôs why I looked for a flat in the Angel area,‚ÄĚ she explains. She now lives in Clerkenwell.
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‚Äôs reading was done in Borders when it was open.
- I like the Ethiopian restaurants in Cally Road, such as Marathon, 193a Caledonian Road, N1.
Turns out that being based in Islington made life a bit easier when it came to trying to publicise Andy‚Äôs plight incarcerated in an Ethiopian jail.
‚ÄúBeing in Islington has been a huge help. I‚Äôve 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.‚ÄĚ Yemi also points out that: ‚ÄúThe chance of meeting connected people ‚Äď journalists, politicians – here in Islington is high, and then there‚Äôs the proximity. It‚Äôs quick to get to Westminster for meetings. It would be much harder if I lived further away, like Manchester.‚ÄĚ
Please do read more about Yemi Hailemariam‚Äôs 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
- Sign the #freeandytsege petition and share too please.
- Read more about the work of Prisoners Abroad¬†at 89-93 Fonthill Road, N4, in this interview with their¬†fundraiser Sam Clarke
Over to you
If you‚Äôd 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‚Äôs roles or¬†Meet Islingtonians¬†to find friends, neighbours and inspiration. Thanks for stopping by. Nicola