How British are you? ‘Our family is in Leeds’

Bethlehem Temesgen, known as Betty, and her mother Elsa.
Bethlehem Temesgen, known as Betty, and her mother Elsa.
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After finding safe refuge in Leeds, asylum seeker Elsa Temesgen and her daughter Betty faced a fight to stay.

As they prepare to become official British citizens, they tell Grant Woodward how they’re building a new life in the city.

ELSA Temesgen has been hitting the books hard.

“I have studied 1,300 questions,” she says, warm dark eyes opening wide as if to indicate that her brain is full to bursting point.

“Some of them were very hard. Some questions even Britons did not know.”

The studying obviously paid off. Having duly passed her test on life in the UK, Elsa and her daughter Bethlehem – who friends call Betty – will next week swear allegiance to the Queen at an official citizenship ceremony at Leeds Town Hall.

It will mean they can stay in the country for good, marking the end of a traumatic journey that took them from Ethiopia to West Yorkshire, saw their home raided twice and included anxious stays in detention centres as they faced being sent back to Africa.

Betty, now 14, was just seven when she and her mum landed at Heathrow Airport in December 2004.

She remembers seeing snow for the first time. “I asked my mum what were those white things falling from the sky,” she recalls with a laugh. “I had never seen anything like it before.”

They had flown to London from the Caribbean, where Elsa’s then husband was working as a surgeon. Their marriage had collapsed and Elsa had been the victim of domestic violence.

Desperate to escape, she nevertheless feared what would happen if she and her young daughter returned to Ethiopia.

Having been born in Eritrea – which has fought a succession of bloody wars with bordering Ethiopia – the split from her Ethiopian husband meant she faced being deported back to her homeland.

But because Betty had been born in Ethiopia she would not have been allowed to live in Eritrea, meaning there was a strong chance the pair would end up being separated, a thought too dreadful for Elsa to contemplate.

“That would have been very hard,” she says now with a heavy sigh. “I don’t even want to think about that.”

They were transported to Leeds soon afterwards and it was here that their fight to stay in the country began in earnest.

Twice their home in Cottingley in south Leeds was raided early in the morning. The two were arrested and imprisoned in Yarls Wood detention centre in Bedfordshire to await deportation.

“It was very horrible,” says Elsa about their time in the centre.

“The first one it wasn’t so bad, it was a short time, just four days. But the second one was 15 or 16 days. The staff were only doing their job but it was very difficult for us.”

Betty wrote letters from the centre detailing her harrowing experiences.

Each time the deportation was postponed after legal interventions.

And the pair had support.

Friends launched a petition calling on the Home Office to let them remain in Britain and there were appeals from Betty’s schoolmates as well as the congregation of Beeston Hill United Free Church where they worshipped.

Their case was taken up by Leeds Central Labour MP Hilary Benn and the YEP was inundated with letters in their support when we asked readers whether Betty and her mum should be allowed to stay.

Eventually they got the news they had longed to hear. An afternoon phone call from their solictor informed them he had received a letter from the Home Office saying they could remain here indefinitely.

The pair both burst into tears and started hugged one another.

Elsa remembers thinking: “Am I in a dream now or is it real?”

That was just under 18 months ago and since then they have been busy building a life for themselves here.

Elsa, 42, works in the post room of a branch of Lloyds Bank in the city centre and Betty is a Year Nine pupil at Bruntcliffe High School in Morley.

“Life is good now,” says Elsa. “We are citizens now and I have started a job, I am also doing some work as an interpreter with the Immigration Advice Service and Solace, which is a charity organisation in Leeds which helps asylum seekers and refugees.

“I really wanted to get a job because I have skills and as long as I’m healthy why should I get benefits when I can work? If you have the choice then why I should you stay at home and do nothing?”

As for Betty, she seems to be blossoming.

“School’s good,” she says, in a slightly American-tinged accent she thinks is a legacy of watching too many US television shows. “I’m getting on well with my subjects and getting good grades.

“We’re taking our GCSE options now. I chose history, art, French and German then there are the compulsory subjects like English and maths.

“I’m enjoying science right now, I’m not amazing at it but I enjoy it because it’s a lot more interesting than it was in Year Eight.

“I would like to go into medicine and work with children as a paediatrician.”

Both have built up strong circles of friends and appreciate the support they received when they faced being forced to leave the country.

“It meant a lot that my friends cared so much about me,” says Betty. “It was really nice to know that a lot of people cared, even people who didn’t know us.”

“You feel if people are supporting you, that you are still someone,” says her mum. “I am still in touch with the people who helped us. They gave their time and money for someone they didn’t know.”

I wonder what they like best about life in Britain?

“You feel safe,” says Elsa. “You can learn here, as long as you want to. If you are keen to work, whatever work it is, you can work. And the government protects the people. In Ethiopia all the time you feel fear.”

They have even grown accustomed to the unpredictable British weather.

“We are used to it now but when we first came it was December and very dark and cold,” Elsa shudders. “In Ethiopia it was 20 degrees even in winter but here it is very cold.”

Despite the dodgy climate they are both clearly delighted to be building a life together in Leeds.

And as far as the future goes, they share high hopes of what it may bring.

“I’m an accountant,” says Elsa, “and I have some qualifications here, so I hope if it’s possible to continue a course at college or university, if I can afford it. It is important to have a skill.

“I hope that Betty will go to university and do anything she wants to do. One of the main reasons I want to work is to save money for her to give her a good education. I will try to help her and encourage her.

“The fact we are safe and together is everything. We will not move from Leeds. All my family is here, I don’t want to leave them.”

TRY your hand at some of these sample questions from the Life in the UK test for would-be British citizens.

* How many people live in the countries of the UK?

* Do people tend to live in the cities or in the country?

* What languages other than English are spoken in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales?

* What and when are the Patron Saints’ Days of the four countries of the UK?

* What is the Church of England and who is its head? What are the main Christian groups?

* How many people say they have a religion and how many attend religious services?

* What type of constitution does the UK have?

* Do women have equal rights in voting, education and work, and has this always been the case?

* How do elections for the House of Commons work? What do the Speaker and Whips do?

* What is proportional representation and where is it used?

* What is the United Nations and what is Britain’s role within it?

* How do people receive medicines from a GP and which groups of people receive free prescriptions?

* What is a credit union?

* What are independent schools?

* When do children take tests at school and how many go on to higher education?

* What are the limits on working hours and times for children?

* What is the film classification system and what are the classifications?

* What are the laws covering seat belts, crash helmets and holding mobile phones whilst driving? What are the speed limits for cars and motorcycles?