Asamnew Asres and his family sought asylum in the UK over fear of persecution in Eritrea. Now they are bringing a flavour of their birth country to Yorkshire. Laura Drysdale reports.
There is little inside the restaurant that Asamnew Asres runs with his wife Rahel Bein that does not point to the culture that they left behind when they fled their birth country of Eritrea.
The menu, packed with hearty stews made up of vegetables and pulses, is typical of the authentic Abyssinian cuisine eaten both there and in bordering Ethiopia, and the traditional art - bold, colourful and woven, that mounts the walls and frames the lighting, complements the modern fittings inside the intimate unit in Wakefield’s civic quarter.
For the couple, it is a fusion of two communities, a way of bringing the food and culture of their heritage to the environment which for more than a decade now they have called their home. It is, too, a way of saying thank you for the warm welcome they received as they set about rebuilding their lives from scratch. “There was a tremendous help,” Asamnew says. “The people that supported us were wonderful. Still that love - that’s the main reason that we wanted to open this restaurant here in Wakefield.”
Fear of persecution
He, Rahel and their three children Milkias, now 22, Mussie, 19 and Biruk, 14 were placed in temporary accommodation in Lupset, a suburb of Wakefield, through the National Asylum Support Service as they waited for their case to be considered, when they sought asylum in the UK in 2007.As Pentecostal Christians, the family feared religious persecution in Eritrea.
“The Government banned small denomination groups in 2002,” Asamnew recalls. “There was so much persecution going on since then and still is even currently. But there was so much persecution during that time. There was a point where it was so difficult to live in Eritrea.”
According to the latest World Report of the Human Rights Watch organisation, the Government refuses to recognise all but four religious groups - Sunni Islam, Eritrean Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Evangelical churches - and security personnel continue to raid private homes where devotees of unrecognised religions meet for communal prayer.
Each morning, Asmanew and his family woke with fear, but he says their faith remained strong. “We were living in that situation everyday with the prospect that you might be in prison, but we didn’t want to leave at the time,” he says. “I was not affected individually on a personal level. We still had hope that things might change. But it still, even at the present time, is the same.”
With no place of worship to visit, Asamnew and Rahel, who were both born in Asmara - Eritrea’s capital, practiced their faith privately at home. But in 2007, whilst the couple and their children, the youngest only a toddler at the time, visited family in China and the UK, relatives alerted them to news that changed their lives. “On our way back to Eritrea, we were informed by family members and friends there that they [the government] had found that we were conducting a home group with people of the same faith and they came to arrest us.”
Told that officials were searching for them and advised not to return, they decided to seek protection in the UK. “That was a very difficult decision to make, whether to stay or whether to go back home,” Asamnew recalls. “Everything that we had worked for - our business, our home, our property, what do we do with that?”
“There was no option,” he adds. “If we knew that it was safe, then we would have gone back, but the choice was difficult and starting life from scratch is not easy.”
The family visited the asylum screening unit in Croydon, before being sent to an induction centre in Barnsley and from there to the temporary accommodation. They then found a home in Eastmoor, Wakefield. “The big picture that we have is of people understanding the situation and being so compassionate and loving,” Asamnew reflects.
Time in the military
Back in Eritrea, Asamnew had worked as a structural designer and engineer, taking on government projects including roads, bridges and schools shortly after the country gained independence from Ethiopia in 1991. In 1996, he and three friends launched their own consulting firm, but from 2000, Asamnew juggled the business around military service, after being conscripted during border conflict between Eritrea and Ethiopia. He was primarily based in military training camps, undertaking construction and engineering work.
“In 2000, there was a shortage of conscripts and all the educated people, even the doctors, the medical people, everyone had to go. Anyone who is able bodied basically had to go...It was a very, very desperate situation and I was part of the conscripts at that time.
“Even though the war ended at the end of 2000, once you are a conscript, there’s no way out. You are still under the government national service programme. So I was working in my company but at the same time also I was a conscript, I was in the military.”
Since arriving in England, Asamnew has completed a master’s degree in structural engineering at the University of Leeds and has worked for various companies in the industry. But that all changed at the end of 2016, when he and Rahel decided to venture into something new and follow her passion for food, with business partner Bizunesh Kebede.
“During all these years, my wife has been taking care of us, supporting us, taking care of the children and so on and the whole time, since way back when we got married, she has been passionate about food,” Asamnew says.
He gave up his job to focus all their efforts on Corarima, which opened its doors in September last year. “Risk is everywhere,” he says. “Life is full of risks. Every day is full of risks. This was exciting. It was challenging of course - it still is challenging. But that’s good. Through challenge you learn so many things.”
Food plans for future
There was never a question as to whether the restaurant would be in Wakefield. The couple, who now live in the Newton Hill area of the city, are part of the community and wanted to “fill a gap” in the cuisine on offer. “What we wanted to do was bring the food that we have and the culture that we have and give it a contemporary touch so that people can associate with it easily,” Asamnew says.
“Because Wakefield received us with such wonderful love and support, we wanted to give back,” he continues. “We wanted to impact in a positive way the community that we are living in.”
There is more in the pipeline too, with plans to sell its mix of spices, run cookery lessons and produce a book on Abyssinian food so people can replicate dishes at home. “Initially when you open your door, people don’t know Abyssinian food, “ Asamnew says. “Usually people go to familiar places so that was the challenge that we had to face and we know that it will take a little bit of time until people come.
“The problem for us is for people to cross the door, get in and taste it. Once they taste it, we know they will love it and be coming back and back again.”
Building a reputation
Corarima on Cross Street, in Wakefield city centre, is open noon until 2pm and 5pm until 9pm Tuesday to Friday and noon until 9pm on Saturdays.
It takes its name from a spice used in Ethiopia and Eritrea.
All of the menu is gluten free and the majority is, or can be made as, vegetarian or vegan.
Dishes are served with injera, a sourdough flatbread pancake made with teff flour.
Already the restaurant appears to have established quite a reputation - it is ranked number one of 337 restaurants in Wakefield on TripAdvisor, with 147 of 148 reviews rating it excellent and the remainder opting for ‘very good’.
For more details and to see the menu, visit www.corarima.co.uk