One Extraordinary Woman in My World Now: Yemarshet Sissay

This is my mother. Her name is Yemarshet Sissay. She was twenty one. I first saw the picture when I was twenty one. I was fostered through a social worker called Norman Goldthorpe with Wigan social services. One foster family, four childrens homes and eighteen years later I was given a letter when I left the “assessment centre” on leaving care. It was from eighteen years earlier.  She wrote  “How can I get Lemn back?  I want him to be with his own people, his own colour. I don’t want him to face discrimination.”  At eighteen I began my search for her with that letter.

The picture was given to me from her college. On returning to Ethiopia she  married a vice minister under  Emperor Haile Selassie (1969)  but had to flee when the revolution overthrew the Emperor in the early seventies.  I found her in West Africa.  She had fled there from Ethiopia working for the UN and never returned to Ethiopia.   I was twenty one years old. I was  similar in age as my father when she met him for the one and only time. In other words the last time she saw him was at my conception – a shock for her.  A few days ago we met in New York.  We’ve met about twenty times in all.  Has it been easy? No. Does it get better? Yes.    She is an incredible and extraordinary woman.  I met my mother for the first time through this picture which was taken a year before my conception.mother1966


83 thoughts on “One Extraordinary Woman in My World Now: Yemarshet Sissay

  1. Such a lovely heart warming story. I’m so glad you managed to find your mother. I remembered your search starting a long time ago now.

  2. I remember meeting you at a writing workshop years ago and we talked about how you came to understand and appreciate that you are the person you were always meant to be. I loved that thought and have never forgotten it.

    • So lovely that you remember that. Because I still live by it. I believe you become who you are. Same thing. Thankyou.

  3. I listened about story on the radio in Addis Ababa. it is touching experience.
    I am eager to know whether you got your mother. If so you are lucky.

  4. Thank you for sharing your account of facts of your feelings behind your back ground. And stying so positive throughout the event. Just recently been introduced to my older brother who’s been giving up for adoption to swedish family. My mother had him when she was 14 years old. It was very very life changing experience for him, but in the other hand it was our dreams come through. Growing up we all know about him, she never hided, for him though it is hard to adjust his life now with his own family. He was happy to meet us all. He even came to the state we all are to visit. But I can sense resistance and consfusion in his emials and phone calls. I told him whatever he wants we will support; however, I will admit my mother will be so hurt and I don’t want her to neglact us more because of him. I also know all of us will be hurt is well. I have hope after I read your story and thank you for giving me that hope.

    • When you all meet it is the beginning of the journey no the end. That is where the difficulty begins and that is where the rewards unfold. My best wishes and thanks for sharing your story. Lemn

      • I met you at a poetry night you gave years ago at a High School in Mytholmroyd. Your story and development fascinate me because I’m adopted. Born in 1967 very close in age to you. My reunion with birth family has brought happiness on one side and fresh rejection on one side. You say fostered children are the most overlooked in society but I believe it’s adopted children of the 50s 60s and 70s. The shame of being illegitimate and silenced out of respect for our adoptive parents. There is no voice for this group of children. I admire your platform and advocacy of fostered children x

        • I don’t think it’s a competition. It’s the same. It’s all about society being ashamed due to some victorian hangover.

  5. Thanks for sharing your story openly. You are a born story teller. You have told the painful past with no exaggeration in a painless way. Your story is so touching that I felt as if we were conversing. Because u did not run away from the truth, I am happy that you found the answers for your questions. It was big relief. Happy family reunion.

  6. Just saw and heard you for the first time in Dartington Hall at the Tagore Festival and was so inspired that I went home and wrote this about you. Hope you like it: Small, slight, black, surprising
    Your mass of curly hair like a halo
    Your eyes bright and shining
    Passion in your sounds
    You amaze, amuse and move us
    A survivor of the English Carecare system
    Roots lost and friendless at 18
    You faced the white adult world
    And knew you had to search out kith and kin
    Who were you you asked but one thing you knew – you were a poet
    Words made some kind of sense of your heartbreak
    You spun and wove them – they held you in their ambivalence
    Thankyou for being you, for being here at this time in our orbit
    Sweet serious funny man
    Your vibrant OK-ness inspires and will inspire
    All those you reach and teach.
    Thank you.

  7. Hi Lemn,

    I had just watched your TED talk and it was very moving…I’m glad you found your mother and a family to call your own. I remember you coming to Switzerland and speaking to us kids at the International School of Berne (I think this was around 2004 or so) and you were just engaging us with your poetry and your writing and I had never thought then that your life at my age at the time (14) was like that and that you endured, rose above and became who you are. I am not sure if there are many who would have.

    Thank you for your story and your works and for just being who you are. I will look out for you if you ever come to my side of the world in Malaysia.

    • Thanks Azlan, I remember the Berne gig. It was really enjoyable. I remember it well. Thanks for being in touch and I hope one day to read on stage in Malaysia. Best Wishes and thanks for reaching out

  8. I’m so sorry you and your mother had to suffer for so long ..but how awesome is it that you have her now ?
    No know will ever love you like your mama ..xx

  9. Congratulations Lemn….
    For having suffered much, but without bitterness…
    This is the secret of your success….Continue to be STRONG…
    Because your kind, truly inspires!!!

  10. I wish I could give comfort and love to the boy you were. But it seems that pain and aloneness led to the beautiful, generous, intuitive being you are.

  11. I saw your baby picture…..what drives people to be so careless with children and see themselves, their own selves righteous in the the eyes of God. Jesus said Suffer the little children to come unto me. If they had had the love of the Lord for children they could not have let you go. We’re they part of some cult or something. Who did they go to, what did they read, whom did they worship, what pictures did they see in their dreams……I want to apologise to you to God to all the children. And Queen VIctoria and the little Etheopian Prince….. So much shame that we bear for what we have done, ALLOWED.
    Your words , your rhythms, your clarity is helping people, I think you know that,you are helping people to heal. You are indeed BLESSED !

  12. Hi Lemn – just heard you on DID – I m breathless! Similar story – identical confusions –
    Thanks you for giving words and daylight to those dark corners that I try to ignore ….revelation!

  13. Just heard your amazing, uplifting story on DID. You have such grace that it’s almost tangible. Am recently widowed and realised that I’m still ‘nursing the bruise’ so I’m now inspired to move on and only remember the positives of a perfect marriage rather than feeling sorry for myself. Thank you and God bless you

  14. Hello Lemn,
    Your desert Island interview was the best I have ever heard. I found it extremely moving and inspiring. I agree very much that is best to let go of everything and give our energy instead to all that is loving and positive in our life right now.
    Thank you for being so authentic, you have no idea how refreshing it is to me.

  15. Hi Lemn. I had never been aware of your work before today. I just listened to your interview on desert island discs. I’m a 55 year old embarking on Novel Knitting. I am a deeply creative person but my life circumstances have been such – I have never had time/mental space/motivation to truly commit to my poetry art and writing. what joy to connect with a person like you!! How truly inspiring to hear about the kids writing poems and searching them out in the dark with a torch. This is the joy and truth in our lives that the simple wisdom of kindness heals us. Blessings to you and every one of your global family now including me. Love the one about the precious woman and her porcupine bum.

  16. Just listened to your Desert Island Disc. Food for thought for the day, a beautiful message of generosity, dignity, forgiveness, creativity, love, laughter .
    Also felt the incomprehensible abandonment of a small boy, I felt pain and anger and wanted to comfort him!

  17. Hi Lemn, I hadn’t heard of you before today, but am so glad I was listening to Desert Island. Your story is so inspirational and uplifting. Its rare in today’s society to see someone tell his story without rancour but focusing all the time on the positive – or ‘smiling at the world’ as you put it so beautifully. That half hour did more for race relations than 100 government statutes as far as I’m concerned. Manchester uni are lucky to have you. All the best in your new role.

  18. Hi Lemn. I heard you on Desert Island Discs and found you funny, thoughtful and moving. You have every right to be bitter and angry but appear not to be. The care system continues to destroy children, though not necessarily through the deliberate cruelty you experienced. I plan to get to know your work. Thanks

  19. Dear Lemn, I was profoundly touched by your life story on another wonderful episode of Desert Island Disc on Radio 4 on 16/10/15. Your life experiences and the way you turned your adversities into strength is aptly summed in a Yoruba proverb that says “Adaniloro fagbara koni” meaning those who treat us with wickedness strengthens us. I strongly believe that you are truly a gift to the world by the creator and your early life experiences was part of the journey of manifestation of that gift; you could never have been you without those horrible experiences. Thank you for being you and allowing your gift to flow through your poetry. I trust that you will “die empty” an the end of your sojourn on this earth. Remain blessed.

  20. Hi Lemn,
    Loved your Desert Island Discs and Ted Talk so much, then listened to your South Bank talk on Children’s Rights. Sooo inspirational, thank you! Linda & family

  21. I sat in the car waiting for the bank to open and I could not get out until DID had finushed. I did not break until the Opera. Despite not understanding a word, it broke into my soul and I was in floods of tears. I have recenty been accepted as a Foster Mother and this program was timely. By Gods gift of grace and wisdom I know I will be a good Foster Mother.. Congratulations on your Chancellorship, I will follow your work and remember your Birthday as it is the same day as mine, Thank you for Sharing you.

  22. Hi Lemn
    I was also a Foster child I am a year older than you. My mother was French she came to the Uk for her studies she had me in the UK but had to go back to France same as Your story. I went to Foster Parents who loved me very much!! But I was dark skinned I have a French name there were always questions. I met my mother when I was 21 it was very difficult the same as you, strained I think she struggled with her emotions. We have met only 4 times!! Always instigated by me. I do love her and have no anger towards her. I recently found my mothers daughter, my sister and she wants a relationship. I am so happy to find my missing link. I feel,like she really understands having lived on the other side.
    She said your presence and absense were missed!!
    My sister told me about you I am amazed at the similarities in our story.
    I have trained as a foster Carer and I am waiting for my second child.
    I would really like to come to a Worksop that you hold. I will be looking out for you.

    My cup is always half full. I’m an optimist I have a guardian angel.
    My mum ( foster) made me feel special “we choose you” she made me resilient I was very lucky.
    I am English I am Fench my mum was from Barnsley my mum was from France do you speak French no! Your not English you look foreign your skin is so dark how do you spell your name etc etc etc….

    • This is a beautiful message Thanks Helen. I am sure we will meet one day. That’s the way things are these days. The internet is a wonderful thing. All my best wishes to the half filled cups in our world.

  23. Hello Lemon,
    I am so speechless by your story. My husband and I were touched, even cried.
    I am a teacher at the UN school in NY city. Is there any way you can come to
    our school to do workshop? If so I would like to arrange it. You make me proud as an Ethiopian.

  24. I was at the BBC Radio Theatre last evening, listening to your Origin Stories being recorded. I got there just by chance. I’m glad I did. I enjoyed the evening very much. It moved me to learn more about you and your work. I have googgled you for hours and tha’s how I got here. I entered the world of poetry very late in life but it doesn’t matter as long as people like you inhabit it. Thank you. Keep building bridges and reaching for the stars.

  25. Hi Lemn, it was such an honor to meet/see you at the Bikila awards in Toronto. Your speech and poetry readings were so inspirational. I am in awe of the person that you have chosen to become, despite all the hardship you went through. Thank you for sharing your story and for being you! Hope to see you again in Toronto!!!

  26. Hi Lemn, I was lucky and got two mothers in the end. My birth mother was Dottie MacPherson, born Dorothy Viola Quick, and she married my father as her 2nd husband, and they had 3 kids together; and then later I got adopted after both parents died, when I was 13. Totally aware, hypersensitive, neurotic, worried, unable to sleep at night, I moved in with friends of our family; by age 15 my name was changed from Wendy Kay MacPherson to Wendy Kay Olsen, reflecting their heritage. This good fortune shaped my future, perhaps also it blocked some other futures, and that seems all right at the moment. Sometimes I get waves of regret. This obsession with mother/child relations is interesting too: I see some men in my life who are much less obsessed by this area of life. I just keep struggling to act appropriately, feel uninhibitedly, and talk to everyone kindly, including strangers, through all our stages of life. Love from – Wendy

  27. Hello Lemn, Happy Christmas and thank you for your Christmas lunch for care leavers. My dear friend D is a care leaver and like you is a “cup half full” person. Thank you for your poetry, your example and your kindness to other people. I saw you on the BBC this morning and I am humbled and reminded to be grateful for the people who love me. Wishing you all the very best in life. With love to a fine person from Steph

  28. Lemm,
    Your story touched me so that I felt that I so regret not having met you when you needed a friend. I lost both my parents at 21 within three months, so I feel that I can feel the pain that you have gone through. I am vey please that you are in touch with mum again. Your life will be complete when you become a dad.

  29. Hey Lemn,

    I am an Ethiopian living in the U.K. for the moment and I just heard about your story from another fellow Ethiopian. It’s quite strange but you are a lot like my father. He had a tough childhood like you(though not comparable ) and despite his difficult journey in life, he has become one of the kindest and loveliest people I have ever known. Watching your interview I see so much of him in you. It’s funny but even your hands and nails look similar ( or I could be projecting). And because of your resemblance to my father and the amazing human you are, I have so much love and appreciation for you. I wish you a long, fulfilling, and warm life. I also hope I get to meet you one day and give you one of the hugs I give to my dad.Xx

  30. So enthralled to read your story. I remember your thoughtful ‘Night Mail’ re-makes for radio. I know that negativity isn’t your thing, but don’t you ever want to find ‘Norman Goldthorpe’ and drag him out to explain?

  31. Hello Lemn, this is Patricia who collected you from Belfast City airport to take you to Armagh to take part in the John O ‘Connor Writing School & Literary Arts Festival a week ago today Many thanks for your help in navigating the route out of Belfast ! It was really lovely to meet you and to have our conversation on the journey home ,exchanging our thoughts and ‘ words’….and learning. I was so pleased your workshops went so well for you and that you were happy Lemn. Your reading at the Planetarium was so powerful, so painful at times it left many just stunned I think.Thank you for visiting Armagh, my home town and the Writing School Lemn. Your smile , which can light up any room and many hearts ,was greatly appreciated by all who met you…..what a special gift you have. You will always be welcome, ” Cead mile failte”.Patricia. Ps. Don’t forget what l said on our journey Lemn , try to make some time for yourself. Patricia

  32. Yesterday I heard your interview with Stephen Sackur. He asked many questions about your life. Two thirds through, you smiled and said “now can we begin the interview?” Despite the ill-conceived interview it did introduce me to you and your work. Your life is in your writing. I hope the next interview focuses on that. I’m really looking forward to reading ‘Tender Fingers in a Clenched Fist’ and getting to know you work. All the best, I extend my hands across the ocean from Santiago, Chile.

  33. Hi Lemn,

    I watched you on Hardtalk earlier this week. To be honest, I’d never heard of you before. What a story! But what dignity, what courage, what irrepressability (if there’s such a word!) ‘ you exhibit.

    Since the show, I have read up on you. You know what, you are a gift from God. That’s what I believe, despite your pain. You are a gift to children who have gone through the care system, with all its failings, a gift to black people generally, a gift to immigrants in the Uk, a gift to young black males who feel ‘the system’ is against them (as it often is) and need/are looking for (very scarce) role models and a gift to those dealt a cruel card by life in general.

    May you live long to continue fulfilling your calling in life. May many see or hear about you, learn from you, follow your example and take inspiration from you.

    I can’t help but wonder what your adoptive family think now and if they have any regrets.


  34. I’m so happy you found your mother. You went to the same school as my daughter’s so knew some part of your history. You are an amazing man and your family must be so proud of you. May I wish you a wonderful life.

  35. Just listened to your story on the Moth Podcast. Wow, did not know the UK had that type of foster care system, taking away your and your mothers rights to have you and raise you as a family. Only found this because I really wanted to know that you found and connected with your mother. So happy for you that you did, you are an inspiration.

  36. With such a life story you could give some support for Pro-Life Organisations Preserving Rights of Unborn, now-a-days termination of pregnancy is shown as sth good especially in media, best regsrds

  37. I find it appalling that the letter from your mother was only released to you when you left care. How could they not have sought to unite you with your mother, on receipt of her letter in which she asked for you. Terrible. I hope we’re better after these decades but suspect it can still happen. The most necessary obligation we owe to all children is that they should be wanted and that they should know that they are loved.

    • Given that I am not daft enough to think it is the same now as in the 1960’s we can still ask ourselves why do we hate women who are pregnant and in need. And why do we hate young people in care?. These two questions seem the same now as they were then. Only the service has changed. Please have a look at my documentry on Channel Four broadcast on November 28th at 10pm.

  38. Hi lemn, I have been a Foster Carer for 34years, of ‘difficult to place’ Teenagers. Its been my privilege to share that difficult part of their lives with them, and at my age now of 74, I wouldn’t have had my life any other way. I will retire next year and am currently fostering the daughter of an ex F Child….I fostered her Mum 25 years ago!! You are so inspirational and that is enough to turn a Young Persons life around. How can we( I work for a small independent fostering agency called Amicus) book you to come and talk to our Young People here in Bristol? Its when they leave care that they are most vulnerable and I would love to be able to invite them back to listen to and meet you. Any chance of arranging that please please?

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