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Asylum seeker who escaped Eritrea's 'no future or hope' opens Ziggy's restaurant in Tunbridge Wells

By Lydia Catling

Growing up in Eritrea, Ziggy Okubay had lost hope of a bright future.

The country has been ruled as an undemocratic single-party state since it gained independence in 1993 and is deemed to have one of the worst human rights records in the world.

But when he made the courageous decision to escape his life changed dramatically.

Ziggy Okubay, is the owner of a new café in Tunbridge Wells on St John's Street
Ziggy Okubay, is the owner of a new café in Tunbridge Wells on St John's Street

The 26-year-old has come a long way since he arrived in Kent as an unaccompanied asylum seeker in 2011, the most notable achievement to date being the opening of his restaurant, Ziggy's, this month in Tunbridge Wells.

The cafe is a joint business venture with three other local restaurateurs Shamim Khandakar, Abdul Munim and Ray Zoman who own businesses in Tunbridge Wells and surrounding areas.

Ziggy hadn't always planned to be a restaurant owner. When he first arrived in the UK he studied languages and then plumbing for three years at West Kent College.

Sadly, he was unable to continue paying for his plumbing course and was forced to take a year out working full time at KFC to save money.

The Eritrean refugee has come a long way since he arrived in the UK in 2011
The Eritrean refugee has come a long way since he arrived in the UK in 2011

It was there that he realised he wanted to open his own restaurant, working his way up from cook to manager in six years.

Speaking about his new restaurant on St John's Road, Ziggy said: "I wanted to create a special place where everybody is welcome and give something back to this amazing town that welcomed me from the day I arrived as a teenage boy."

The proud new restaurant owner risked capture and imprisonment when he fled from Eritrea at 17 years old, escaping on foot in the middle of the night and crossing the border into Ethiopia.

He said: "When I left school the government wanted me to go to the army and that is when I fled.

“My family didn't know I escaped but I spoke to them soon after I left. They felt happy and sad."

The Solanky family having lunch and ice cream
The Solanky family having lunch and ice cream

Ziggy is one of six children and has been unable to see his parents and siblings since fleeing Eritrea.

Two of his sisters have followed in his footsteps and escaped the country, with one living in Holland and the other currently in Ethiopia.

He said: "The country hasn't changed, it just gets worse and worse. Everyone is leaving and everyone in my neighbourhood is escaping.

“It's hard to live in the country. You live in fear all the time. You don't know what is going to happen.

“There is no hope, no future. You think it will change but it never does. It has been nearly 27 years and nothing has changed."

After crossing the border, the then teenager found a refugee camp in Ethiopia with other people who had fled their home countries.

"I spent two weeks crying and missing my family. It was scary but I was happy that I was leaving. It's sad when you leave your hometown, your family, you leave everything."

For the next two years he travelled across Africa and Europe, eventually making it to England via a lorry from Calais. In England he was caught by police and sent to the Millbank Centre in Ashford.

He was soon given accommodation in Tunbridge Wells and has lived there ever since. He said: "I don't think I can live outside of Kent now. I consider it my second home. When I leave I always want to come back."

Visitors to Ziggy's can look forward to a range of desserts and sweet treats for all ages and, until July 31, customers can enjoy 10% off all food and drink.

Reservations can be made on 01892 240200.

Read more: All the latest news from Tunbridge Wells

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