Former refugee to walk 100 miles barefoot for East Ham food bank

Children in the Bonny Downs area of East Ham circa 1900.

Children in the Bonny Downs area of East Ham circa 1900. - Credit: BDCA

A former refugee will walk 100 miles barefoot for an East Ham food bank after being "shocked" by an example of poverty in Newham.

Mentesnot Mengesha settled in Newham 30 years ago after fleeing civil war in Ethiopia and has since built a successful life.

But after seeing a young boy walking to school with his father in Plaistow wearing shoes that were worn out and falling apart, Mr Mengesha felt compelled to act.

Former refugee Mentesnot Mengesha

Mentesnot Mengesha, who settled in the borough 30 years ago after fleeing civil war in Ethiopia, will walk 100 miles barefoot to raise money for Bonny Downs Community Association. - Credit: BDCA

Mr Mengesha, who is a part-time lecturer in teacher education and training at New City College, says he was shocked to see such a visible sign of poverty on the streets of one of the world’s richest cities.

“I was lucky to escape civil war in Ethiopia and I feel just as fortunate to have found a warm welcome in Newham,” he said.


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“Yet, over the years, I have felt the disparity between the haves and have-nots in our borough is getting worse.

“The scene of a boy walking to school with his shoes falling apart should be consigned to Victorian times and not something we see today.”

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As the pandemic highlighted the inequalities and injustices that many in the borough face, Mr Mengesha decided to walk in solidarity with those who have been hit hard by Covid and who can’t afford shoes, clothes, food and other essentials.

He will walk 100 miles barefoot in Newham parks and on the Greenway footpath this summer to raise money for the Bonny Downs Community Association (BDCA), starting at Flanders Playing Fields in East Ham on Saturday, June 12. 

“I have a vision for the future that no child will be walking our streets in a visible manifestation of poverty,” Mr Mengesha added.

“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.”

He hopes people would support his vision by sponsoring his walk and that it would inspire others to take on their own challenges to make a difference.

Mr Mengesha has previously held various roles in charities, councils, educational institutions and NHS Trusts, published three books in Amharic - including the full translation of King Lear by William Shakespeare held in British Libraries - and co-edited two multi-disciplinary academic books.

His desire to help create change after seeing a child in worn-out shoes resonated with BDCA, which was originally inspired by a man who had a similar encounter a century ago.

The charity’s chair Dave Mann said: “Over 100 years ago, a man called Charles Howe visited East Ham and was outraged to find 60 children running around with no shoes in the area that’s now Flanders Playing Field.

Bonny Downs Community Association chair Dave Mann.

Bonny Downs Community Association chair Dave Mann. - Credit: BDCA

“Hearing heartbreaking stories of poverty and struck by a strong community spirit, he resolved to change things – sourcing clothes for the barefoot children and teaching their parents to read and write.

“His work later became the inspiration behind our charity.”

The pandemic has brought out the same community spirit in Newham but also underlined that some of the challenges of 100 years ago still exist today - and Covid has made them worse.

“In the eight years we have been running our food bank at Bonny Downs, we’ve never seen such demand for food,” Mr Mann said.

"More than a year after the pandemic began, we are still supporting families who have no money for fuel and clothes.

“Mentesnot’s story is an inspiration, showing how someone in the most difficult of circumstances can build a successful life in Newham with a positive attitude and the right support.

“This is the same hope we share for all of the families we have been partnering with through the pandemic and we are honoured that Mentesnot has chosen to walk 100 miles barefoot to support them.” 

All the money raised will go to supporting Newham residents in need through the BDCA food bank and families project.

Visit https://localgiving.org/fundraising/my-barefoot-challenge-supporting-families-in-need to donate.

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