'I need protection': Retracing steps of refugee to Leeds after fleeing Ethiopia as new resources are launched

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Forced to flee his volatile country after Ethiopia’s government declared a state of emergency as protests intensified, Getachew Obse and his family hoped for a fresh start.

But, after arriving in Yorkshire as an asylum seeker in 2016, he knew he faced an entirely different challenge on the winding, complex road that leads to permanent residence in the UK for migrants.

Two years on, and after securing refugee status, the 50-year-old now works part time for the Royal Mail in Leeds, the city that has become his home and which he believes is helping to bridge the gap when it comes to integrating communities.

Now he is retracing his journey - from fearing for his life in Ethiopia to finally settling in Leeds - as two new websites are launched to provide guides for migrants who are struggling to find their feet, access services and transition when they arrive in the city.

Turbulence in Ethiopia

When Mr Obse fled Ethiopia in 2016, the nation was in the midst of one of its most turbulent periods, as anti-government protests had reached boiling point.

In January of that year, following the election of a new government, human rights groups have estimated that more than 100 people died as a result of clashes with security forces as demonstrations intensified.

By July - as country leaders prepared to declare a state of emergency - tens of thousands of people joined rising demonstrations in Gondar to the north and by September, rights campaigners claim a further 500 protesters died in clashes.

After years of violence and protests, Abiy Ahmed took over as Ethiopian Prime Minister this year, and within months the nation declared its ongoing war with neighbouring Eritrea had ceased.

'Human rights defender'

Mr Obse describes himself as a human rights defender, which would have been at odds with Ethiopia’s establishment before he fled, as rumours circulated that officials had even temporarily banned access to the internet to block communication.

He arrived in York seeking asylum in October 2016.

“I am a refugee because I need protection,” he told the YEP.

“As a journalist and human rights defender, I was targeted by the government securities.

“I cannot return to my country due to fear for my life.”

It took four months before Mr Obse could secure refugee status, fearing for his safety if he returned to Ethiopia, in a period he describes at best as being “stressful”.

Settling in Leeds

He eventually settled in Leeds with his family.

One thing that surprised him, in a good way, he said, is the familiarity he was able to find when connecting with Leeds’ Ethiopian communities.

“I like it very much [here] because it is a diverse community and [there is] an inclusiveness among the residents,” he said.

“Especially, a large number of Ethiopians living in Leeds so that it is comfortable for me to be in touch with Ethiopian communities.”

Mr Obse already spoke English as a second language, a skill he picked up at school.

But he said he still takes pride in trying to improve.

“It is important to improve and advance my English,” he said.

“I found it easy and there are opportunities for a person who needs to improve [their] English.”

However, as he explains, gaining access and understanding how services work, when coming from a country so different, proved difficult as he experienced a “culture barrier”.

“It was taking so long to integrate with the system and it was challenging for me to get services from public sectors,” he said.

New websites to help migrants 'minimise hurdles'

Mr Obse's story is being shared as two new websites have been launched today, billed as online guides to help migrants who have recently moved to Leeds from another country.

The Transition Leeds Guide and New to Leeds websites, commissioned by Leeds City Council, were created by charities Touchstone and Leeds Asylum Seekers’ Support Network.

Crucially, they were developed with input from the experiences of refugees and migrants themselves in the city.

They also feature translations in more than 20 different languages.

Among those who took part in the development process - through exercises like focus groups - was Mr Obse, who has backed their introduction.

“It can give an opportunity for migrants to get some help and information that helps to minimise their hurdles,” he said, speaking about the New to Leeds online resource.

“The website has a lot of information and is attractive to use.

“It has a lot of information and the translation option makes it useful for people who don’t speak English.

“I would have definitely used something like this when I moved to Leeds.”

The websites offer information ranging from practical advice regarding health and housing matters, to help with employment opportunities and accessing public services.

Since settling, Mr Obse has taken part in charity volunteering work with Touchstone’s Migrant Access Plus (MAP+) project, something he feels has helped boost his confidence after securing refugee status.

“I have got pieces of training and learning opportunities,” he said.

“I enjoyed being a volunteer for charity organisations. I have done good things to build my confidence and improving my skills.”

Coun Debra Coupar, the council’s deputy leader and executive member for communities, said she hoped the fresh resources would help the city welcome new arrivals to Leeds.

She said: “I am pleased to launch these two new websites in Leeds which will provide a range of informative and practical support to people making a new life in our city.

“These websites will enhance our approach to welcoming new people to Leeds and is part of a larger programme of migration work being delivered by the council with key partners.”

To visit the websites, visit www.transitionguide.org or www.newtoleeds.org.

Explainer: Who are refugees and migrants?

The term migrant is broadly used for anyone who has moved to the UK, from within or outside of the EU.

There are many reasons people decide to move to a new country, but usually it is either for study, work or to flee persecution or conflict in their home nation.

If they have fled war, they are classed as an asylum seeker and must then apply for asylum with the Government.

They are not allowed to work during this time or claim benefits.

Asylum seekers who are successful in their claim are granted ‘Leave to Remain for five years’, meaning they effectively become a refugee who can legally work.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), by mid-2015 there were 117,234 refugees and 37,829 pending asylum cases in the UK.

The figures equate to less than one quarter of a per cent of the UK’s total population.

Often overlooked, those who secure refugee status can face a difficult time because they have 28 days to leave the accommodation that had previously been provided for them by the Home Office as an asylum seeker.

They also lose the small allowance they receive - about £5.28 per day according to the UNHCR - and many can face the prospect of homelessness.

While support is available, those who need it often don’t know where to go, or how to access it, something the two newly-launched migrant websites in Leeds aim to tackle.