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Photography courtesy of Shabnam Kulsoom

‘Justice delayed is justice denied’: how activists won the fight for an inquest into Shukri Abdi’s death

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Activist Shabnam Kulsoom tells the story of a community's eight month battle to find out the truth behind the tragic drowning of Shukri Abdi.

24 Feb 2020

Photography courtesy of Shabnam Kulsoom

Trigger warning: mentions of suicide, death by drowning

On 27 June 2019, a barrage of social media posts were brought to my attention by my niece. The town of Bury in Greater Manchester had woken up to the devastating news that no community, no town, no city, wants to ever find themselves waking up to.

“Uno a girl in Broadoak died? Apparently, she died in River Irwell’’.

I read post after post written by 12-year-old Somali refugee Shukri Abdi’s school friends immediately after her body was discovered. It seemed clear to everyone that her body was found in an area that did not make sense for her to have been near. Shukri couldn’t swim. For that reason, her family said it would be “out of character” for her to be playing near the water. The statement the police released to the press was swift in making a causal link between the death of Shukri and the dangers of cooling off in the water in hot weather. 

But this doesn’t feel like it tells the whole story. I have lived in the Bury community for over 20 years, and Shukri’s school, Broad Oak Sports College has been controversial for as long as I can remember. There’s been bullying among pupils, allegations of inter-staff bullying that were linked to a teacher’s death by suicide, and poor Ofsted reports. Hearing that the school was connected to this tragedy wasn’t that surprising.

I did not know Shukri’s family prior to this incident but felt a real sense of duty to reach out, as both a parent and a concerned member of the community. I cannot imagine what it feels like to experience such a massive loss under such tragic circumstances – nonetheless, I felt that uncovering the truth and protecting every other child was paramount.

“Zamzam was very vulnerable mentally and physically and was being hounded by various actors in the community who were knocking at her door, including journalists, MPs and local councillors”

I contacted my good friend Maz Saleem, an anti-racism campaigner and activist. Maz’s father, Muhammad Saleem, was murdered in Birmingham by Neo-Nazi terrorist Pavlo Lapshyn in 2013. From her own struggle to seek justice for her father, Maz’s advice, support and experience was going to be crucial if we were going to make much-needed noise about the alleged mishandling of this case, and what seemed like serious mistreatment of this already vulnerable black refugee Muslim family by the police, local authorities and the school.   

When I met Shukri’s mum Zamzam, and the rest of her family, they said that the police and school were not understanding or sympathetic, and didn’t take their concerns seriously. Meanwhile, they said journalists were simply taking soundbites from interviews to fit their own narratives. I called upon Dilly Hussain and Roshan Salih, two experienced journalists from 5 Pillars who I had complete faith and trust in, to get the family’s truth out without censoring their story or their views on the way they had been treated. Direct appeals were also made to the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham.

The first week of the campaign was stressful, as there was a fight against the clock to ensure the family were protected and given time to make decisions. Zamzam was very vulnerable mentally and physically and was being hounded by various actors in the community who were knocking at her door – including journalists, MPs and local councillors. There was nothing in place to protect the family and she was in danger of being exposed to ideas and suggestions being made about her daughter’s death.

Our priority was legal representation as a matter of urgency, as this was the only way we could guarantee that the family would be afforded a level of protection that would give them a moment to breathe. Maz contacted Attiq Malik of Liberty Law Solicitors, who was instructed to act as the legal representative and also brought on board the brilliant Ashley Underwood QC, who had been counsel to the inquest into the death of Mark Duggan.

“I want to see justice. If the rights we came to this country for exist, I want something done”

I spent almost every day with the family in the first few weeks before leaving for the Islamic Hajj pilgrimage. I started the petition within days and, alongside Maz, built trust and supported them with anything that I could, whether that was simply sitting with Zamzam and the extended family to discuss the day’s events, or mobilising the community for the demonstrations that took place after the funeral, the press meeting in August and relocating the family out of the community. 

Supporting Zamzam while she gave her statement to the police was crucial; she finally had her opportunity to speak her truth. It took six hours to complete and immense courage. The comments she made early on to the press still illustrate her only wish. “I want to see justice,” she said.  “If the rights we came to this country for exist, I want something done”.

This week, after almost eight months, we will finally get a five-day inquest into the death of Shukri Abdi. This is something we fought hard for.

Everything has an opposite. Black and white. Right and wrong. Justice and injustice. What myself and the family want is truth over falsehoods. Respect over disrespect for the most vulnerable in society. To prevent another family from ever experiencing the trauma that the family of Shukri Abdi have endured. Justice delayed is justice denied.