When Mentesnot Mengesha, former refugee from Ethiopia, saw a poverty-stricken young schoolboy walking through Newham with shoes so broken he could see his toes he knew he had to do something to help those living in poverty in the borough.

Mentesnot has lived in Newham for more than three decades, arriving in London as an asylum seeker after fleeing civil war in Ethiopia.

He sought political asylum in the UK after his high school political activism saw him imprisoned in Ethiopia, and built a successful life in London by studying for four degrees, working with charities and local authorities, in the NHS, as well as teaching at different institutions. He now helps the next generations by training future teachers at New City College.

One day last year, Mentesnot was waiting at a dentist’s surgery in Plaistow when he saw a teenage schoolboy walking with shoes barely held together.

He said: “I saw a boy coming straight from school, in his uniform, and his shoes were completely worn out. You could see his toes.

“But he was just playing on his phone, he was smiling – he was just a child.

Mentesnot Mengesha
Mentesnot Mengesha was saddened to see a boy walking the streets with broken shoes in one of the world’s richest countries

“My heart was broken completely.

“He was with his father, who was probably just trying to put food on the table and couldn’t buy a new pair of shoes.

“I couldn’t do anything: I had to help him keep his dignity. I could have spared him £20, but that’s no solution at all.”

When lockdown hit, Mentesnot felt even more powerless to help, but the situation played on his mind and when restrictions eased he contacted some local charities to see what could be done.

He was introduced to East Ham-based Bonny Downs Community Association, a charity founded in 1998 that supports Newham residents by transforming disused community centres, running food banks and after school clubs, organising social events and establishing sports and skills classes for members of the community.

Mentesnot said: “The chairman of Bonny Downs, David Mann, was very kind and very interested in the issue. He told me the history of what the area was like 100 years ago, and also told the story of how Bonny Downs was founded, and that made me decide to walk barefoot to raise some money.

“I decided: this is my commitment, and over the coming two months or so, during the summer, I will walk 100 miles.”

Poverty-stricken, barefoot local children in the Bonny Downs area of East Ham, circa 1900
Poverty-stricken, barefoot local children in the Bonny Downs area of East Ham, circa 1900

‘The gap between the haves and have nots is very wide in Newham’

In Newham, 52 per cent of children are living in poverty – 14 per cent more than the London average. However, unemployment and out-of-work benefits claimant rates are not much higher than London averages, which suggests that Newham’s issues relate to in-work poverty.

This is, unfortunately, an enduring trend in Newham, and Bonny Downs chairman David Mann said that the charity was particularly interested in working with Mentesnot’s campaign because of how closely it resembled their own history.

The Community Association was originally started by members of the Bonny Downs Baptist Church who started off by renovating a local community centre which had stood empty for years.

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After the successful creation of The Well, which remains an important community hub, Bonny Downs took responsibility for the disused Flanders Fields.

Around 125 years ago, the pastor of the East Ham Baptist Church had walked over those fields and seen more than 60 children with no shoes on their feet: the level of poverty in the area was high, with most residents working in the Beckton Gas Works.

Barefoot Challenge walkers on the first day of the challenge
Barefoot Challenge walkers on the first day of the challenge

David said: “Mentesnot’s plan not only chimes with the history of our charity and our area, but also with the work we’ve been doing in terms of emergency food provision, fuel provision, clothing provision during the course of the Covid lockdown.

“The idea of allowing children in 21st century Britain to hunger, and to not be properly clothed – it’s an absolute outrage.

“The fact that poverty is still an issue is morally abhorrent, and is a shame on everybody.

“We can blame politicians for allowing these conditions to continue, but we elect those politicians, we hold them to account and we, therefore, are silently responsible for the fact that this can carry on.”

Mentesnot explains that diving deeper into understanding the level of poverty in Newham is what really inspired him to try and take action.

He said: “I did a study for my MPhil research, and in Newham you can see the infrastructure, the building work – particularly in Stratford and the Olympic Park you can see the physical development is really encouraging. It’s fantastic, it’s a good investment coming to Newham.

“But by the same token, the disparity between the poor and the rich is completely unacceptable.

“39,000 children are in poverty in this borough. University research concludes that we’re almost next to Tower Hamlets in terms of relative poverty. The gap between the haves and the have nots is very wide.”

‘This cause celebrates our humanity and diversity’

Mentesnot is one of many people walking barefoot as part of the challenge, which began on Saturday, June 12.

Both Mentesnot and David said the first day, which was held at Flanders Playing Field, was truly inspiring.

More than 80 people turned out to walk barefoot with Mentesnot on Saturday – the oldest walker was 86, and the youngest just one year old.

Children from the Bonny Downs Community Association after school club taking part in the Barefoot Challenge
Children from the Bonny Downs Community Association after school club taking part in the Barefoot Challenge

They included staff from the charity, food bank volunteers, children from the after school club, members of Bonny Downs Church, neighbours, friends and Stephen Timms MP.

Mentesnot has already raised £1,250, and the challenge overall has raised more than £4,000 – all of which will go to the Bonny Downs food bank and to their projects supporting low-income families.

“£4000, and hopefully more, is going to provide food for hungry stomachs and clothing as well,” said Bonny Downs chair David.

“But actually, the fact that we need charity to plug those gaps can cause more harm than good – it’s the issue of justice. We need to get to the root of these problems, rather than just sticking plasters and trusting charities and volunteers to sort these issues out.

“We need those in power to tackle the structures – we need decent taxation, for people to understand that tax isn’t a punishment, it’s a privilege and that a fair and just society is better for everyone.

“But on Saturday, it was wonderful to bring so many diverse groups together – age groups, ethnic groups religious groups, socio-economic groups. All together for this one cause, to celebrate our humanity and diversity, and all the positives that there are in our borough.”

Barefoot members of Bonny Downs Church fundraising at the launch of the challenge
Barefoot members of Bonny Downs Church fundraising at the launch of the challenge

Mentesnot says he’s feeling ready to take on the rest of the challenge with his family and community by his side.

“One of the people who was walking with us said, after we finished the first mile: ‘Oh, well, now you have 99 miles to go!'” he laughed.

“But it was really good fun, and I was impressed, to be honest, with the turnout. The local MP, Stephen Timms, he is always with the community and on Saturday he was encouraging people, walking barefoot.

“Disabled people, elderly people, children – I was so impressed that everyone committed to this.

“On Saturday I walked two miles, so I have many, many miles to go. But I will definitely achieve it by the time the summer is over.”

You can donate to Mentesnot’s Barefoot Challenge here.

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