The first time Yonas Kebede took the controls of a plane last month, his teacher thought he must have flown one before. The 22-year-old, who had always dreamed of being in the cockpit, did everything instinctively, soaring through the sky and dipping the plane’s wings without flinching.
“My instructor said most people when they go on their first flight start to get stressed, but when he said ‘Roll to the left and the right’, I just did it. He was impressed and I was so happy,” he says.
The cost of Yonas’s flying lessons made national news after a Court of Appeal ruling that Newcastle City Council should pay for his and his brother Abiy’s further education. On Tuesday the front page of the Daily Mail screamed: “10k bill to teach asylum-seeker to fly”.
Yonas, whose speech now has the twang of a Geordie accent, came to Britain from Ethiopia when he was 13 and his brother was 11. More than £7,000 of the £10,000 from the council is a loan which he intends to pay back as soon as he is a working pilot. He only needs it because the Coalition changed the law in 2011, making it impossible for young people without permanent immigration status to get a student loan.
His court victory in July was a moment of elation but when he recalls seeing Tuesday’s papers, Yonas’s face crumples. “I didn’t do anything criminal, I just wanted to learn like anybody else,” he says.
His experience shows how hysteria can grow. News of the ruling was first published in an obscure law report in The Times three months after it happened, buried below Births, Marriages and Deaths. A week later, the Newcastle Chronicle picked up the story on its front page, with the headline “Tyneside taxpayer money paying for Ethiopian flying lessons” and two days after that, the national press piled in.
“I was shocked,” Yonas says, sitting in a London café with The Independent. “They took my pictures off Facebook and they didn’t ask for permission.” The pictures that newspapers found on his account illustrated the story they wanted to tell –of a hard-looking boy. But in the flesh, Yonas is anything but – and his story of seeking out an education against the odds is hard not to admire.
Leaving their mother in Addis Ababa, Yonas and Abiy Kebede arrived in London for what they thought was a visit in 2004. Travelling with their father and their older brother Benyam, who was then 19, their trip took a terrifying turn when their father disappeared, taking the boys’ passports with him.
“My dad was supposed to come back but he didn’t. I never heard from him again -–or my mum. We kept asking our older brother what he knew. We learnt later from Benyam that my dad was involved in politics and a group called the OLF [Oromo Liberation Front] and that he’s probably in prison or has been killed.”
They settled in Newcastle, where the two younger boys went to school and Benyam acted as a stand-in father while they tried to claim asylum. They got on with life, picking up English quickly, working hard and making friends.
Three years later they were abandoned a second time. Yonas recalls: “I was 15 and all I knew is we had come to London see Benyam’s friend for a week in the summer holidays. Benyam left us there and we never saw him again. His friend kept ringing Benyam’s mobile and he didn’t answer, so he took us to the Home Office who contacted social services and arranged for us to go back to Newcastle.”
Yonas and Abiy still have no idea where any of their family are – or even if they are still alive. Their lawyer believes their parents might have been trying to get their children to a safe place while they carried on with political activities, but the truth is nobody really knows.
Their new foster mother was a lady called Madonna Simbo, who worked as a receptionist in the college where they were enrolled. “She was just like a mum; she cooked for us and always encouraged us to study.”
Catapulted into the first year of GCSEs with no parents and having only been in the country three years, Yonas started working harder than ever. The following year he got seven GCSEs, including an A in maths and a B in English.
Having wanted to be a pilot “ever since [he] can remember”, Yonas skipped A-levels and enrolled in a vocational aeronautical engineering course. He was doing brilliantly, but at 18 he hit another barrier. A bungling of his immigration case meant officials thought he was no longer eligible to stay in the country to study. When the problem was finally solved, too much time had elapsed and he had to start again, this time taking a university access course.
He did well enough to get a pilot training place at Buckinghamshire University, but turned it down because the fees were £160,000 once flying lessons were included, and he felt bad charging the council such high sums. “I chose a different route because it was cheaper to do the pilot licence first, then go to university to do the rest,” he says.
He has now started his flight training at Elstree Aerodrome in Hertfordshire, but has only completed five of the 45 hours needed to get onto a course because Newcastle City Council has not yet paid his fees. When he finishes he hopes to apply for a degree in aviation at Kingston University.
Yonas’s temporary immigration status lasts another year, after which he can apply for indefinite leave to remain. In the meantime, Yonas is hoping the Home Office realises he isn’t Ethiopian any more. “I don’t want to go back to Ethiopia; for me it’s like a different country now. Maybe back then Ethiopia felt like home, but now it’s here. Now I feel British.”