Queen Mary alumnus Mentesnot Mengesha was honoured at BBC Radio London’s Make A Difference Awards for his efforts to help support low-income families in his local Newham.
Mentesnot sought asylum in the UK more than 30 years ago when he was imprisoned in Ethiopia for ‘political activism’ at school. After settling in East London, he went to university and built a career in the third sector – first working in local authorities, then the NHS, before becoming a teacher.
He said: “I was lucky to escape civil war in Ethiopia and I feel just as fortunate to have found a warm welcome in Newham. Yet, over the years, I have felt the disparity between the haves and have-nots in our borough is getting worse.”
Mentesnot became aware of East London’s poverty problems while he was a PhD student in Queen Mary’s School of Geography. He explained: “My study was about development in Newham. You can see the infrastructure, the building work - particularly in Stratford and the Olympic Park - is really encouraging. It’s fantastic investment coming to Newham.
“But the disparity between the rich and the poor is completely unacceptable. University research concludes we're next to Tower Hamlets in terms of relative poverty. There are 39,000 children in poverty in this borough. Rates of unemployment and out-of-work benefits claims are not much higher than London averages, which suggests that Newham’s issues relate to in-work poverty.”
He was driven to act when he saw a schoolboy walking in old shoes so worn that he could see his toes through them. He recalls: “My heart was broken completely. I couldn’t do anything; I could have spared £20, but that’s no solution, and I wanted him to keep his dignity.”
After considering how best to help local families in need, especially those affected by the Covid pandemic, Mentesnot decided to raise money for the Bonny Downs Community Association. The East London charity provides a lifeline for many struggling families through food banks, donated clothes and after-school clubs.
The charity started out as a local community centre and later took on the disused Flanders Fields – where, over 125 years ago, children from poorer families were seen playing with no shoes on their feet. Learning this local history after seeing the struggling schoolboy inspired Mentesnot’s barefoot fundraising walk.
Ahead of the walk, he said: “I have a vision for the future that no child will be walking our streets in a visible manifestation of poverty – and I believe that, by working together, every one of us can make that vision a reality by dreaming big while taking our own small steps to make a difference.”
Mentesnot personally raised almost £1,500, and by recruiting others to join him on his epic trek he managed to bring in more than £10,000. His efforts to help support some of the most vulnerable people in the local community were highly commended in BBC Radio London’s 2022 Make A Difference Awards.
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