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The death of Shukri Abdi: ‘She was failed when she was alive and she’s still being failed now’

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When a 12-year-old refugee drowned in a river in Greater Manchester last summer, police initially refused to open an investigation. But, the first stage of the inquest into her death reveals campaigners were right in believing there was more to the case. Nimo Omer investigates.

24 Mar 2020

The 27 June 2019 was a sweltering summer’s day. Desert winds from the Sahara blew over Europe that month, making it the hottest June ever recorded in European history. The weather was all anybody could talk about. School summer holidays were right around the corner. Children in the small town of Bury, Greater Manchester, were anticipating long summer evenings, hazy weekends, barbecues, sitting for hours in parks doing nothing at all with friends. For teenagers and those teetering on the edge of puberty, the broiling summer of 2019 looked set to be a memorable one. 

But on the evening of 27 June, something didn’t sit right with Zamzam Ture when her 12- year-old daughter, Shukri Yahya Abdi, did not return home from school as she normally did between 3:15 and 3:45pm. As Zamzam would eventually say whilst giving evidence in court, she felt a “pain” and a “heaviness” when Shukri failed to appear.

Once Zamzam had fed her other children, she ventured out to her daughter’s school, (then-named Broad Oak Sports College, since rebranded as Hazel Wood High School) to try and find her daughter. She waited, in vain, as two women went to check if Shukri was in any of the after school classes but they could not find her. At this point, a creeping fear started to take over and she began to panic as she was unable to locate her daughter’s whereabouts. At 7.30pm, she reported Shukri missing to the local police, only half an hour before a call would be made to emergency services about a girl who had gone underwater and not reappeared. Less than four hours later, Shukri Abdi’s body was found in the River Irwell.

Shukri Yahya Abdi’s death was almost immediately mired in controversy and contention. At a press conference in August 2019, the family’s lawyer Attiq Malik said “within hours” of Shukri’s death Greater Manchester Police had published a press release that ruled out the possibility of suspicious circumstances surrounding the case. Police had suggested Shukri drowned after going into the water to “cool off” – despite the fact she couldn’t swim and her family reported that she was terrified of water. But, to police, her death was a “tragic incident” and nothing more.

The police’s lack of urgency and seemingly indifferent demeanour only added fuel to the fire as questions quickly began to arise from the family, friends and general onlookers about what really happened to Shukri. Her death became shrouded in mystery, leaving it to others to piece together what may or may not have happened.

Since the tragic climax of that hot June day, activists, campaigners like Maz Saleem, Shabnam Kulsoom and the family’s legal team have fought for Shukri’s death to be properly investigated. According to Attiq Malik, an inquest was originally scheduled for December and would have most likely been “a basic tick box exercise over a couple of hours”. The Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) opened an investigation after receiving a complaint that alleged officers “failed to conduct an effective investigation and prematurely concluded that the death of Shukri Abdi was not suspicious”. The police initially denied these allegations and the investigation is still ongoing. After extensive protests across the country, the family then won the right to a proper inquiry.

It was a fraught and long journey but Shukri’s family and friends were one step closer to unveiling the truth of what really happened that day. The inquest was set to begin in two months, on the 24 February 2020, in Heywood. Shukri’s family and friends quietly filed into the courtroom, followed by witnesses and supportive members of the public. The room was quiet, punctuated only by the low murmur of lawyers conferring.

The process had proven to be incredibly distressing for Zamzam whose coping mechanism over the last few months had been to “shut [the case] out,” according to Attiq. On the fifth and final day of the inquest, the toll of the long journey was visible. She wept with her head bowed and vowed to, “Wait until I get justice”.

Nonetheless, Zamzam told an earnest and profoundly open account of the quiet, helpful and friendly daughter she had lost. Over the course of a few hours, her words truly brought Shukri Abdi and her life, that was cut short far too soon, into view.

Who was Shukri Abdi?

In the last eight months, Shukri has become a hashtag, a slogan, a cause that many could rally behind. But what can’t be forgotten is that she was also a young girl, a daughter, a student  – a human being. 

After having fled Somalia with her mother Zamzam Ture and four siblings, Shukri Yahya Abdi came to the UK via a refugee camp in Kenya, as part of the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme, which is vetted by the United Nations. In January 2017 Shukri Abdi, alongside her family, settled into Bury, a small town in Greater Manchester just over two years before she died. 

Shukri’s mosque teacher Mr Ali, an unassuming and softly spoken man who didn’t want to disclose his full name, tells gal-dem that Shukri was “very, very friendly and a bit of a quiet person”. He was “shocked” when he heard the news, which hit home in a very personal way; he lost a sister, who had drowned when she was “only three or four”. “So,” Mr Ali says heavily. “I can feel the pain [of Shukri’s mother]”.

“Shukri was very, very friendly and a bit of a quiet person”

“[Shukri] was a nice child, very nice”, he continues, adding that “We just couldn’t believe it.” He says he thought it was “out of character” for Shukri to venture out so far from her home. “I don’t know what made her go that far… she didn’t know much about the system.” As Mr Ali spoke, he wore a wistful and melancholic look in his eyes. “Yes… we miss her,” he concluded, with a sad smile. 

Others painted a more lively, yet equally fond, picture of Shukri. Speaking at the inquest, Shukri’s maths teacher at Bury Oak described the 12-year-old as a “happy child in school” and “a joy in class”. However, unlike in Mr Ali’s madrasa, where Shukri was reportedly quiet and kept to herself, at Bury Oak she was “lively”, “chatty”, and “a bit of a cheeky sort” who would sometimes “try and push boundaries” in her maths lessons. At school, she seemed to be energetic, always “laughing” and “giggling” with her friends – just another kid finding her feet. 

The five-day inquest 

Zamzam Ture, Shukri’s mother, spoke about her daughter with profound honesty and earnestness

From the beginning of the inquest into Shukri Abdi’s death, it was clear this was not going to be a straightforward process. As members of the public, witnesses and supporters of the family began to file into the quiet courtroom the tension was palpable and it only continued to rise as the five-day inquest faced delays due to unforeseen circumstances, including problems with the translation of Zamzam Ture’s evidence and questions about whether one of the children was medically fit enough to give evidence. The coroner suggested it may be months before they arrive at a verdict.

What has been established is this: Shukri’s body was found in the River Irwell in Bury on 27 June 2019. Four children were with her, both in and around the river, before she died. These children, along with a fifth child who witnessed the events, gave evidence via video link to the inquest about their recollections of the incident. For legal reasons, the children were referred to as Child One, Child Two, Child Three, Child Four and Child Five. 

Throughout the inquest, it became increasingly clear that the children in question did not know each other very well. As Child Two gave evidence on the final day of the inquest, wearied from hours and hours of delays, they pointed out that it was the first time Child One, Child Two and Shukri had all hung out together after school. On a normal day, Shukri was expected to go home and then go to the mosque. The only exception to this rule was if Shukri had after school clubs like athletics or cooking. 

Child Three and Four had never even met Shukri before the 27 June and during the police interviews that took place after Shukri drowned, both repeatedly forgot her name. With confused and dazed expressions etched on their faces, Child Three and Four explained that prior to the date of her death, there was no plan made for all four children and Shukri to go to the River Irwell. According to Child Four, it was a “coincidence”.

However, Child Two did acknowledge that, during their maths lesson that day, Child One and Two decided to go to a “waterpark with a slide”. But what actually transpired – a trip to Primark, dinner at Child One’s house, and their eventual fateful destination to the banks of the River Irwell was presented throughout the inquest as being fairly random. The account of another witness, Child Five, however, indicated that there was more to the case than youthful exuberance. What they saw suggested the presence of far more troubling forces at play, that underpin the whole situation and raise new questions about Shukri’s life at Bury Oak  – and her death.

“I knew that she would die when she went down the second time and never came back up” 

Although Shukri initially agreed to join Child One and Child Two after school, it seems she changed her mind at some point during the school day, and decided to go to her athletics after school club. Once Child One and Two realised that Shukri would not be joining them, they became “angry and pissed off”, according to Child Two, and went to look for her in the school.

Child One and Two found Shukri in the locker room. Another witness, Child Five, said, via video evidence, that when the pair entered Child One “started pushing her [Shukri] around”, and told her to get changed.  

“It was all laughing and jokes [before they arrived],” Child Five recalled. “But as soon as Child One came in it was just silent”. Shukri seemed “a bit worried, scared, not like, really scared – just a bit”. This appeared odd to Child Five as “normally she [Shukri] was happy”. According to Child Five, throughout the incident, Shukri was quiet and looked at the wall and the floor. Child Five thought they [Child One and Two] were being “horrible”. Eventually Child One and Two left  – with Shukri. Once they’d gone, another girl who was present said to Child Five, “that was a bit nasty”, of the incident. Child Five indicated that most of the contact between the pair and Shukri came from Child One.

Although Shukri decided to join Child One and Two in the end, there were several different points during the interaction that she seemingly became hesitant. She started “panicking”, said Child Two, because she did not know what she would tell her mother. “She knew she was going to be in trouble if she couldn’t find an excuse for why she was coming home late,” Child Two added. 

Once at the river, Shukri also had reservations about getting in the water. Child Three, who was with Child Four when they bumped into Child One, Two and Shukri in Bury’s town centre, recalled Child One telling Shukri to “get in properly”, assuring her that they would “teach” Shukri how to swim. After noticing Shukri’s uncertainty, Child Three gave her a little encouragement, telling the nervous child to, “Go in, just trust them, they’re your friend”. 

But once Shukri was in the deep end of the river she became increasingly alarmed. “She was clearly panicking,” Child Three told attendees, on the third day of the inquest. “She was grabbing [Child One] by the neck “holding Child One’s head with her two hands”. At this point, Child One began to swim away from Shukri, letting go of her, according to Child Three and Four. 

“I [saw] her [Shukri] [come] up and she was staring at us,” Child Three recalled. “The second [time] she went under Child Four jumped in.” Child Four tried to save Shukri’s life but couldn’t find her in the water. “I knew that she would die,” said Child Two in their video evidence. “When she went down the second time and never came back up.” 

Scanning the room I noticed Zamzam’s empty seat and whilst her absence was felt, her presence simultaneously lingered in the room as Child Two’s words hung in the air. 

Emergency services were called and both Child Three and Child Four ran to the Bury Police Station to try to get help. But it was too late for Shukri. Her body was pulled from the river at 11.30pm that evening.

Institutional failures 

Shukri Abdi’s death is not an isolated, tragic incident. It is a story of institutional failure. “This young girl was failed,” says Bashir Ibrahim, a human rights activist and an organiser of the protests that occurred last summer. “She was failed when she was alive and she’s still being failed now she’s dead”.  

From the moment Shukri and her family were housed on Wash Lane in Bury East, a particularly deprived part of Manchester, a familiar story of the systematic neglect of refugees by the UK government began to unfold. 

According to a Guardian analysis of Home Office data in 2017, 57% of all asylum seekers are housed in the poorest third of the country. The Independent reported at the end of 2019 that 32,396 of the 63,512 who have sought asylum here are accommodated by just six per cent of local councils – all of which preside over areas with below-average household incomes.  These areas are also often majority white, as is the case in Bury, where white people make up 88% of the residents. This in and of itself should not be a problem. However, once placed within the context of the contemporary British political landscape, where immigration has become a scapegoat for economic downturn, the difficulties a Somali refugee family might face on being housed in such an area become evident. 

On at least two or three separate occasions during the inquest, witnesses used words like “coloured” and “half caste”. The usage did not seem intended to be derogatory or offensive; rather they were dropped in conversation as completely innocuous descriptors. It’s telling of a community where the local council has been hit by accusations of racism from its own elected officials. Meanwhile, fans of the local football club have repeatedly been criticised for directing racial abuse at opponents and, on occasion, their own manager and players.

“Zamzam’s child was taken away from her in a system that doesn’t listen to her, in a system that doesn’t care about her, in a system that’s indifferent to her life”

It was in this climate that Shukri was assigned to attend Bury Oak Sports College, a school that had been having problems for years. There were claims made that there was a culture of bullying amongst students and staff. When a Bury Oak teacher committed suicide in 2015, an inquest heard she had suffered “strategic bullying” in the weeks leading up to her death. Shukri’s mother herself stressed her belief that her daughter was being bullied at Bury Oak. As Bashir Ibrahim emphatically asks, “What extra protections and support was given to this young girl and her family to help her acclimatise and integrate into the school? It’s not just about giving them housing. It’s about holistic care”. 

Ayan Aden, a key actor in organising protests for Shukri that happened last summer in Birmingham and London, says the process of resettlement support needs to go further. “When people are resettling refugees into areas like Bury, we need to take the social implications into consideration,” she comments. Putting already vulnerable people in areas where they may experience social exclusion and won’t have access to established social networks equipped to help them, puts them at more risk. 

“You finally make it to a refugee camp, with so many complications, making sure you have the best for your kids and then you finally [are granted asylum],” continues Ayan, describing the experience of Shukri’s mother. “You’ve moved to a ‘first world country’ and go there thinking ‘My child’s safe, at least I don’t have to worry’.

“But it’s at that pivotal point that [Zamzam’s] child was taken away from her. In a system that doesn’t listen to her, in a system that doesn’t care about her, and in a system that’s indifferent to her life,” she adds.

It’s a sentiment exemplified by the police handling of Shukri’s death. From the start, the role the Greater Manchester police played has been questioned. From the decision of officers to take witness statements from only two out of the four children present at Shukri’s death, to the hasty ruling of her death as an accident within two weeks, which lead to the IOPC investigation, there were worrying errors of judgement made that call into question their competency.

“It was a long time ago,” says Steven Duckworth, a witness that jumped into the water to try and save Shukri’s life, on the impact the delays have had. “I wish they’d have [done] it [then]”. His remark encapsulates the crux of the issue. Endless delays in the investigation made it incredibly difficult for Zamzam Ture to find out the truth. gal-dem reached out to the GMP for comment but the force said they will not respond until the inquest has concluded.

Remembering Shukri

The inquest was adjourned on 28 February 2020. The court is currently waiting for the full translation of Zamzam Ture’s evidence which may take a number of weeks. The senior coroner is also waiting to find out if Child One is fit to give evidence from her doctor, however finding a date within the next two months that is suitable for all legal representatives, Shukri’s family and the senior coroner is proving to be difficult. Once evidence has been concluded, the senior coroner can give a final verdict, but until that point, Shukri’s family will have to wait for closure and for Shukri to be truly laid to rest. 

The death of Shukri Yahya Abdi was a deadly cocktail of social issues. To try and flatten this story and blame one person or institution would fundamentally miss the point. For now, the onus keeps falling on grassroots groups and local communities to speak up for people who don’t have a voice of their own and the fight is only getting more gruelling.

It is hard to say whether Shukri will ever truly receive justice. But what activists have achieved thus far in their fight for answers is remarkable. There is undoubtedly a lot of pain attached to this story of a little girl who travelled thousands of miles for a new life in the UK, only to drown less than 30 minutes away from the safety of her home. Steven Duckworth sums up with a deep sigh: “I’m just sorry that we couldn’t do better.”