Chris Webber meets a former asylum seeker who has already settled in the North-East and, after ten years of struggle, went on to set up a company to help hundreds of others in our society

CRAMMED in a cell with 80 other political prisoners, Bini Araia heard his name called by a guard. It meant death. Bini was happy.

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“I wanted a shorter life,” he says, smiling over coffee and biscuits in the Middlesbrough town centre building where he runs his own charity. “I was happy because conditions were so bad there, I just couldn’t live there any more.”

Instead of execution Bini, an Eritrean dissident and qualified geologist in Ethiopia, was bundled into a military vehicle and driven to a wasteland area and told to get out. The army man drove away. After a while another car came and he was taken to Addis Ababa and told to stay in hiding.

His adoptive mother, an Ethiopian, had paid about $5,000 for the escape. She had been good friends with his real mother, an Eritrean, who had ‘disappeared’ in 1993, at the time when Eritrea voted to leave Ethiopia to become an independent nation. Bini was about 16 when she was taken from home after work one night. He never saw or heard of her again.

Five years later there was a border dispute and a two-year war broke out between the countries, two of the poorest on earth, which both spent hundreds of millions of dollars, killing tens of thousands of people. More than 60,000 Eritreans were deported. It ended in 2000 but tensions remained high and Bini, his name found in a raid on the Eritrean Embassy, was rounded up in 2001 and found himself in that tiny prison cell, wishing for death.

After his escape he hid for weeks at addresses in Addis until his adoptive mother, a successful businesswoman, paid another $5,000 on documents including a false passport. Bini found himself on a flight to London.

“I had a guide, but I was abandoned in Heathrow,” says Bini. “Addis is a big place but I had never seen so many people and never so, so many white people, it was totally overwhelming. I was checked all over my body and interviewed. I just told the truth about everything. I was taken to place for asylum seekers in Stockwell. For me the big freedom was being able to clean your teeth, things like that. There was three to a room, but, as the people in Calais will tell you, I thought, ‘why not ten?’ It is just about feeling safe at that stage.”

After a few weeks Bini was put on a coach and sent to a place he had never heard of called Middlesbrough to an address just off Linthorpe Road. Middlesbrough, with its higher than average empty homes, has the highest proportion of asylum seekers in England and is the only place in the country to breach national guidelines by exceeding the one refugee per 200 of population limit by 125 per cent.

It took Bini eight years to be given the right to remain in the UK. Until then he was not allowed to work, but, educated and resourceful, he vowed to contribute to his new society. “Especially Teesside,” he says. “It’s why I have never left. I owe this place.”

He worked for various charities including Vincent DePaul, and, after becoming a British citizen, he used that experience to set up his own charity which has its own trading arm. Called Investing in People and Culture (IPC) it offers helps bring together diverse groups of people, often refugees and migrants, with indigenous people. The charity offers English language classes, crucial for integration, but also health courses, gardening classes, cooking, even bicycle maintenance. A key to the success is the charity’s trading arm, The Other Perspective (TOP), motto; ‘integration through enterprise,’ which offers catering, cleaning and translation services. It is a way for those people who have been granted asylum to get into work, start paying taxes and become full members of our community.

But for Bini, a proud Briton now and a married father, it is his work helping other refugees that inspires and haunts him. “I can’t forget my history,” he explains. “We hear stories of desperate people. People selling body parts in a clinic in Egypt for rich Americans and Chinese to raise money to escape. The surgeons don’t even sew them up properly. We have people in Middlesbrough who have paid kidnappers who have captured their loved ones. The kidnappers choose a victim, put a tyre around his or her’s neck, and set fire to it. They then call our people and say, ‘this will happen to your loved one unless you pay £30,000,’ and let them hear the screams. But we’re not just for refugees. We are about the common good for all socially excluded people.”