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Lemn Sissay (b. 1967) is an Ethiopian-British poet, performer, author, and broadcaster. 

Lemn Sissay was born in Wigan, England to a young woman named Yemarshet Sissay who had recently migrated from Ethiopia. She had become pregnant unexpectedly by a young man she only met once. He was an Ethiopian Airlines pilot and Lemn was conceived during a stopover on her flight to England. While pregnant, Lemn’s mother was placed into a home for unmarried mothers. Then when Lemn was born, his mother was placed into a mother and baby unit.  

Lemn’s mother was asked to sign adoption papers but refused with the intention of completing her studies and then returning to Ethiopia with her child. Despite her protests, Lemn remained a ward of the state for his entire childhood. 

Lemn was placed in a foster home in Lancashire when he was two months old. His foster parents were Mr and Mrs Greenwood, a working-class, white Christian couple. Mr Greenwood was a teacher and Mrs Greenwood was a nurse. They were strict but caring towards Lemn when he was a young child.  

Lemn’s social worker, Norman Goldthorpe, told the Greenwoods to treat the placement as if it were an adoption. Goldthorpe renamed the child Norman, after himself. 

There were no holidays when I was in care, so for years I held on to my first holiday with my Wigan foster family to Lochinver, a little fishing village in the western Highlands. We stayed in a cottage on the hills above its scallop bay and I recall looking down at the twinkling lights at night. I felt like I was in a Famous Five mystery and spent all day exploring with my step-siblings (Pattenden). 

When Lemn was twelve years old, the Greenwoods decided he was too much to handle. The couple now had three young children of their own and asked for Lemn to be removed from their care.  

Over the next six years, Lemn moved between four different children’s care homes where he experienced physical, emotional, and racial abuse. Lemn’s final placement was at Wood End Assessment Centre, which became the subject of investigations regarding physical and sexual abuse. Lemn was sent to this prison-like institution after painting an Ethiopian flag on the rooftop outside of his window. 

When Lemn left care on his eighteenth birthday, he was provided with a copy of his birth certificate and a letter from his mother. It was only then that Lemn learned his real name.  

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 (Sissay). 

Lemn was reunited with his mother at the age of twenty-one. She had returned to Ethiopia, gotten married, and had two daughters. Then, in 1974 she fled from Ethiopia due to political turmoil and was working for the United Nations in Gambia. Since then, Lemn has only seen his mother about twenty times in total. 

When I left the children’s home at 18, there were two things I wanted to do with the rest of my life. Write poetry and find my family. I knew that I could use the attention my poetry received to help me do that. I knew that my story was something that people would want to know more about, and that would help me, too (McMahon). 

When Lemn aged out of the system, he was offered a small flat without a bed and no further assistance. With no one to turn to, he started a gutter cleaning business and self-published his first book of poetry, which he sold to people on his housing estate.  

Lemn went on to publish numerous highly-acclaimed books of poetry, plays, and other writing. His commissioned poems are featured on landmarks around the world, such as the Royal Festival Hall of London England and The British Council Offices in Addis Ababa. One of Lemn’s most recent publications is a children’s book titled Don’t Ask the Dragon (2022) about a little boy who goes on an adventure after having no one to celebrate his birthday with. 

Lemn’s experiences in the care system have been a central focus of his work. His award-winning memoir, My Name is Why: A Memoir, was published by Canongate Books in 2019. He produced The Report, which describes his reaction to a psychologist’s report describing the abuse he suffered in the care system. Lemn performed this work at the at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 2017.  

A psychologist’s report is required for compensation claims regarding abuse in the care system. In 2018, Lemn finally received compensation and an apology from the Wigan council for his experiences.  

The care system should be a place where 18 years is a gift because you’ve got all the resources, the best education, the best psychotherapeutic work, and actually it was 18 years of betrayal, secrets, lies, beatings, incarceration (Hattenstone). 

Lemn served a seven-year term as Chancellor of the University of Manchester beginning in 2015. The Lemn Sissay PhD scholarship for care leavers is awarded in his honour at the University of Huddersfield. He has been awarded six honorary doctorates from Leicester University, Essex University, University of Huddersfield, University of Brunel, University of Kent, and University of Manchester. 

Lemn has received extensive recognition for his work. Some of his notable awards include an MBE, awarded in 2010 for his services to literature. In 2014, he received a Foundling Museum Fellowship. Lemn was honoured as an OBE at the Queen’s Birthday Honours in 2021.  

Lemn is passionate about creating a sense of community for care-experienced people. In 2013, he organised a Christmas dinner event in Manchester to make sure Care Experienced people do not have to spend the day alone. Now an annual event, Christmas dinners run by volunteers take place all over England and Wales.

Lemn now travels the world, including Australia. He appeared at the Byron Bay Writers Festival in 2018 and during the same visit, gave a Keynote Address at the Centre for Excellence in Child and Family Welfare Conference in Melbourne before attending the Bendigo Writers Festival. He has also spoken on ABC Radio and ABC Radio National on a number of occasions, including with Richard Fidler in May 2020.

Lemn Sissay has also been the subject of a BBC documentary and has been featured on the BBC documentary series, Grumpy Old Men. Lemn’s fame and accolades have intensified the loss he feels due to being separated from family. 

If I’m given an award or something, there’s nobody from my past who’s going to call and say: “Well done.” There’s nobody for me to prove what I’ve achieved. There are no sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents – but then there never was. And I’m finally OK with it. This is my life. I just drew a slightly shorter straw than everyone else (McMahon).


Lemn Sissay website. 

“Lemn Sissay.” Still We Rise, 4 Aug 2020. 

Edwards, Tyler. “Cardiff: Volunteers give up Christmas Day to feed care leavers.” BBC News, 25 Dec 2022.

Hattenstone, Simon. “I Was Dehumanised’: Lemn Sissay on Hearing his Harrowing Abuse Report Live on Stage.” The Guardian, 2 May 2017. 

Kellaway, Kate. “Lemn Sissay: ‘I would die if I didn’t live in the present.’” The Guardian, 21 Aug 2017. 

McMahon, James. “Lemn Sissay: ‘I’m not angry any more, but it’s a daily battle not to be.’” The Guardian, 27 Aug 2022. 

Pattenden, Mike. Lemn Sissay interview: ‘I found the idea that poetry could put me on a plane mind-blowing.’” The Sunday Times, 4 April 2022. 

Sissay, Lemn. “One Extraordinary Woman in My World Now: Yemarshet Sissay.” Lemn Sissay Blog, 8 Mar 2013. 

Image available here.