Say her name: Shukri Abdi

In early 2017, Zamzam Arab Ture and her five young children embarked on a life-altering journey from a refugee camp in Kenya to the small, and predominantly white, town of Bury, Greater Manchester. The family had fled a protracted civil war in their home country, Somalia. They were resettled in the United Kingdom as part of the Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, a United Nations-vetted program. Zamzam’s eldest daughter, Shukri Yahya Abdi, was ten at the time. Despite the traumatic situation she’d been born into, Shukri was a quiet, happy and playful child. She took well to her new life. She loved to cook, watching recipe tutorial videos on YouTube. She helped her mother take care of her four siblings. The family described her ‘as mature beyond her years.’ And when she first started school, she was excited about making new friends.

Within two-and-a-half years of the Abdi family’s relocation to a country that they had hoped would offer them safety and security, Shukri was found dead. The 12-year-old had drowned under questionable circumstances in the River Irwell, a popular local attraction. The Greater Manchester Police almost immediately issued a statement categorizing Shukri’s death as ‘a tragic accident.’

As she battled her grief, Zamzam found herself navigating a system that was alien to her, in a language that was not her own. She insisted that there had to be more to the narrative the police were pushing: Shukri did not know how to swim and was scared of the water, so why would she get into the river? She had also been bullied at her school – the now-rebranded Broad Oak Sports College – prompting Zamzam to file multiple complaints. The four children who were with Shukri at the river that midsummer’s evening weren’t even her friends – it later emerged that two of them had pressured her into spending time together. Zamzam soon arrived at the conclusion that the police were mishandling Shukri’s case and mistreating the Abdi family because of their race and background. Shukri was a veiled, black refugee girl, after all.

Despite the complicated nature of Shukri Abdi’s death and the unsettling details that surround it, her drowning has garnered little national attention and almost none, internationally. The scant coverage brings to the surface structural inequalities in how stories pertaining to people of colour and refugees are treated in Great Britain and beyond. To many, Shukri’s death shines a disturbing light on the failure of schools, the police force and the UK government to protect some of the nation’s most vulnerable people. But to immigrants, refugees and minorities in particular, it also highlights an entrenched underbelly of racism – from police negligence to bullying on school playgrounds.

The afternoon started innocuously. Two female students at the Broad Oak Sports College asked Shukri to join them after school. It was late June, just past solstice; families and friends were spilling into the outdoors in Bury as temperatures rose as high as 23°C(73°F). The girls had planned to take advantage of the warm weather, and maybe even to visit a waterpark. When Shukri didn’t show up, the two friends headed to the school’s changing rooms, where they suspected she might be, to confront her. (A witness in the locker room later said the girls ‘pushed [Shukri] around.’) Shukri, who usually informed her mother of her whereabouts, remained hesitant, but agreed to accompany the girls regardless. Their first stop was Primark, where one of the children tried to shoplift some clothes for the outing. Employees at the department store reprimanded the group and asked them to leave. The schoolmates then had a bite to eat before heading out into the mild evening.

According to testimony heard over a five-day inquest in February, en route to the “waterpark,” the three girls encountered two other children who joined them by chance. Once the five children reached the river, which troughs at roughly 6 metres (20 feet), one of the girls suggested Shukri get into the water with her, saying ‘she would kill her’ if she refused. Shukri entered the deep end of the river along with the girl, referred to during the inquest as Child One. Shukri was fine when hanging onto the shoulder of Child One for balance, two of the other children said at the hearings. But when Child One swam away from her, she started to struggle. Within minutes, her head had slipped beneath the water, once, and then twice, before disappearing altogether. As she took her final gasps, the last thing she heard was Child One laughing at her.

Meanwhile, Zamzam, who had expected Shukri to arrive home around mid-afternoon, started to feel uneasy. She wondered whether her eldest child had stayed behind at school, and made her way there to find out. But Shukri was nowhere to be found. As the hours wore on and her daughter failed to return, the ‘pain’ and ‘heaviness’ that Zamzam felt crested into panic. Concerned that someone might have kidnapped her daughter, the worried mother reported Shukri missing to the police at around 7:30 p.m. Soon after, the police were notified that a young girl was in distress at the River Irwell. By the time the officers reached the scene, Shukri had been submerged for 20 to 30 minutes. A search team pulled the girl’s lifeless body from the water at around midnight. Ten hours after filing the missing persons report, Zamzam was informed that her daughter had been found dead. She described the officers dealing with the drowning as ‘not sympathetic.’

Having categorized the death as an accident, the Greater Manchester Police advised people to refrain from ‘cooling off’ in rivers during the unusual heatwave. The month Shukri died was the world’s hottest on record, with winds from the Sahara sweeping into the UK. At first, the incident was reported primarily in national weather stories, listed alongside other drownings in the country. ‘UK weather: 12-year-old girl dies whilst playing in river with friends’ and ‘Police issue UK hot weather warning after three die in 24 hours,’ read two reports.

In the year after Shukri’s death on June 27, 2019, there were fewer than 20 substantial articles by national media outlets about the drowning: most reports were by Muslim blogs and local newspapers, including 5Pillars, the Manchester Evening News and the Bury Times. Despite the story being worthy of more in-depth investigation, there is just one sweeping piece that explores Shukri’s drowning, beautifully written by Somali journalist Nimo Omer for Gal-Dem, an independent British magazine produced by women and non-binary people of colour.

Shukri’s case only started to garner broader attention when the killing of George Floyd in the United States spurred Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests to call for racial justice the world over, from Palestine and Paris to London and Sydney. Actor John Boyega, rapper Ice Cube, UK celeb Maya Jama and Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz have all been vocal about Shukri’s case. Boyega tweeted her name followed by a broken-heart emoji on the weekend the BLM movement held protests in London. A petition set up by activist Mufti Fendi on change.org last year calling for ‘appropriate action [to be] taken against those who were involved’ in Shukri’s drowning had only garnered 2,400 signatures in its first month. It now has over a million. ‘We do not want [Shukri’s death] to be brushed under the carpet like nothing happened,’ Fendi says in the petition description.

Amid the renewed scrutiny and a surge in public interest, on June 8, Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, said he would ‘look into’ the case. Separately, Shukri’s school conducted an internal investigation into its anti-bullying policy and concluded that they ‘were not aware’ of any bullying. The Abdi family’s solicitor, Attiq Malik, has referred to the outcome as ‘white-washing.’ The latest full inspection of the school by Ofsted, the UK government’s Office for Standards in Education, Children’s Services and Skills, ranked the institution as ‘inadequate’ in all areas. While ‘most’ students said that bullying at the school was ‘infrequent’, ‘a small number’ of students informed inspectors at the time that they felt ‘bullying was an issue for them.’ A 2015 inquest heard that Caroline Bailey, a Religious Education teacher at Broad Oak Sports College had suffered from systemic bullying at the school. She had died by suicide in 2012.

Zamzam made a national media appearance on the now-cancelled Victoria Derbyshire show of the BBC in August 2019, along with solicitor Malik and Shukri’s uncle, Mustafa Omer. She shifted uneasily in her seat when Derbyshire asked her how she felt; the depths of her pain and grief seemed etched onto her face. When asked by Derbyshire whether institutional racism had stalled an investigation into Shukri’s death, Zamzam said yes, without hesitation.

I was filled with hopelessness when I first heard about Shukri’s case, not only because of the tragic nature of her death but also because I had learned about it more recently than I would like to admit – via the hashtag #JusticeForShukri on Twitter and Instagram. As a woman of colour and a journalist who is deeply familiar with structural imbalances of power in the media and the kind of stories that can take priority over others, I should have been less surprised than I was by this belated discovery.

While there have been strides forward in many global media newsrooms, UK journalism remains far from diverse enough. That means stories like Shukri’s can either fall by the wayside or be dismissed by white editors as not significant enough for the allocation of scant resources. A 2016 study conducted by City University London found that just 0.4% of British journalists are Muslim, compared to nearly 5% of the UK population. Meanwhile, only 0.2% of British journalists are black, compared to 3% of the population. Unsurprisingly, UK journalism is also majority male. These statistics demand that we ask: would Shukri’s life and death have received more attention had the editors assigning stories on the week of her death not been overwhelmingly white?

But Shukri’s case, and her grieving mother, shook me for more profound reasons. Back in the 1990s, I experienced bullying as a young girl. I am British-Lebanese and was raised in a conservative, practising Muslim household. I could never understand what Shukri may have endured while bullied at school. She was Black, wore the veil and was a refugee, making her vulnerable to racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. Whatever discrimination I have been subjected to in the UK pales in comparison to the racism darker-skinned and black people endure daily. I would even hesitate to say that I’ve ever experienced Islamophobia, since I pass as non-Muslim by way of how I dress. As a lighter-skinned Arab, I am deeply aware of and continually check my privileges.

But I do know what it is like to be ‘othered’ in the UK, particularly as a non-white girl in a majority-white town. Young, white female bullies can be vicious to the point of violent when presented with a vulnerable peer. Muslims are prime targets for playground bullies; the darker one’s skin, or the more evident one’s identity is by way of appearance, the worse the bullying tends to be.

My parents moved to the United Kingdom from Lebanon in 1980, soon after marrying. They left a violent sectarian conflict and were strangers to the West. Out of necessity, with a great deal of struggle and courage, they made this country their second home. The 15-year long Lebanese civil war would ultimately leave about 200,000 people dead. It would spark an exodus of some 900,000 emigrants: roughly 25% of the entire population at that time. Most Lebanese, over several waves of emigration spanning many conflicts, resettled in sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, and across Europe and the United States. Some were refugees, while many, like my parents, were seeking the guarantee of a better life and economic prosperity.

I grew up in Ireland and Northern England. During our upbringing, particularly while at school in the overwhelmingly white city of Worcester (population 101,328), my four brothers and I were often made to feel like outsiders or ‘foreigners.’ Memories of my childhood, as documented in dramatic journal accounts, are tinged with a desperate desire to integrate. I could not recognize the bullying that I experienced for what it was at the time, so I never spoke of it, let alone reported it. I simply wrote in my journal that I suspected my peers did not like me because I ‘was weird.’ I was embarrassed that we looked different, and that we had been taught to behave differently by my loving mother and strict father. During Ramadan, I fasted. When my class went indoor swimming, I wore a long-sleeved leotard and shorts that covered my thick thighs. I wasn’t allowed to go to parties or to mingle with boys. I attended Qur’an classes with a local Muslim immigrant family. I kept my head down, and I tamed my unruly hair. My mother, who wears the hijab, was especially protective of me. I could never understand why. (‘You’ll understand when you grow up,’ she’d say. She was right).

I wanted nothing more than to be accepted by the same white girls who taunted and bullied me. I even befriended a classmate who referred to veiled women as ‘freaks’ and often called me and my brothers Pak*s, a racial slur used to refer to the Pakistani-British community. A tall girl who regularly cornered me in the playground bullied me. She had this peculiar and cruel habit of coming so close to my body that she would look straight down at me, and take delight in my cowering in fear, before abruptly pushing me to the ground, while laughing hysterically. I got used to the bullying. I subliminally dismissed it as the price to be paid to live in a country which I knew wasn’t my real home, even though I had a passport that implied otherwise. In hindsight, I wish I had spoken up, but I didn’t have the right tools or vocabulary to do so.

Meanwhile, my father experienced institutional and systemic racism that culminated in a dragged-out lawsuit. I remember, distinctly, him spending months in bed as he battled depression triggered by the fallout, while my mum worked tirelessly to keep the household of eight functioning. I often felt my parents, like so many other immigrants and refugees, had left one war and found themselves in another.

‘We spend the first part of our lives demanding air in our homelands, and then we leave to countries where we are promised air, only to find out we were robbed of lungs,’ wrote Lebanese singer Hamed Sinno, who lives in New York and identifies as queer, on life in exile.

According to the monitoring group Tell MAMA, the UK has witnessed an increase in the number of hate crimes against Muslims over the past four years, many of which they describe as ‘alarming.’ Islamophobic incidents tend to spike in the days following terror attacks in particular, the group’s annual reports show. After the Manchester Arena bombing of an Ariana Grande concert in May 2017, for example, Islamophobic attacks surged by 700%. They increased fivefold following the London Bridge terror attack in June the following month, culminating in an attack on pedestrians near Finsbury Park Mosque that left one man dead. The week after a white supremacist murdered 51 Muslim worshippers at two mosques in New Zealand in March 2019, Islamophobic attacks in Great Britain surged by 593%. The incidents suffered by Muslims include verbal and physical abuse.

Meanwhile, in the twelve months through November 2019, about one-fifth of young people in the UK were subjected to bullying. 31% said they were bullied at least once a week according to data compiled by anti-bullying charity Ditch the Label. Over a quarter identified the cause of their bullying as having to do with their race, culture or religion.

Less than a year before Abdi’s death, in October 2018, a 15-year-old Syrian refugee boy called Jamal moved with his family from a refugee camp in Lebanon. They resettled in the town of Huddersfield where Jamal was assaulted on a school playing-field. His attacker dragged him by his neck to the floor and said, ‘I’ll drown you’ before forcing water from a water bottle into his mouth, mimicking the brutal, torturous act known as waterboarding. The incident was filmed and disseminated widely. Only after it started trending on social media did it garner national attention, and condemnation. According to some reports, the attacker had shown support for the far-right Islamophobic organisations, the English Defence League and Britain First on his social media accounts. Jamal’s sister, who wears the hijab, was assaulted by girls at the school. In one particularly distressing incident, a bully forcibly removed the girl’s veil. Jamal’s sister had endured so much abuse from bullies that she tried to take her own life, the family’s lawyer claimed.

These are just some of the stories we know. Many incidents likely go unreported – in part due to the lack of confidence among minorities and people of colour in the way schools and law enforcement handle racism in this country – or do not make it to the national press.

The morning of June 27, 2020 was grim, cold, and rainy. The UK had just come out of a heatwave similar to that of 2019; the heavens were providing a reprieve. But as Londoners assembled at Hyde Park in the early afternoon to mark the one-year anniversary of Shukri Abdi’s death, the clouds dissipated and the sun broke through, as if to honour her.

Hundreds gathered in front of Marble Arch station, many wearing masks. Several people performed salat, the Muslim prayer, before the march began. One man recited the fatiha, the opening verse of the Qur’an. (In Islam, those who die harrowing deaths, including by drowning or burning, are considered martyrs and sent straight to heaven. Likewise, mothers who lose a young child are too. These thoughts came to mind as I watched the women and men praying.) Similar events were held in Los Angeles and Toronto.

Dozens chanted ‘No Justice, No Peace, Racist Police!’; ‘Say Her Name: Shukri Abdi!’; ‘She was just 12’; and ‘Shukri’s School is Racist!’ repeatedly for over two hours. Some wore ‘Justice for Shukri’ t-shirts; organizers distributed water, bananas, and masks for free. The messages on the placards, many of which included artwork of Shukri in a plain cobalt hijab, were pointed:

Shukri was murdered, there was no accident!

She could not swim, they pushed her in.

Murdered by her bullies. Covered up by her school. Ignored by police officers.

Imagine staring at death in the form of your fear.

If Shukri were white, we wouldn’t have to remind them to do their jobs.

If you are not outraged, you aren’t paying attention.
While silence costs Black lives.
Her life mattered.

I’ve lived in London for eight years. I have often tired of it. But its streets had never seemed so alive. I spent some of the afternoon with a veiled, soft-spoken Somali-British mother of four teenage girls, who had joined her. ‘We couldn’t miss this,’ she said. ‘It’s our duty to be here. To support Shukri and to support her mother.’

The demonstrators marched through Oxford Street and Haymarket, which had recently reopened its retailers and welcomed customers back following a three-month lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They stopped traffic en route: dozens of policewomen and men had cordoned off some roads. A jubilant Black man stepped out of his car briefly, carrying his toddler son in one arm while raising the fist of his other arm. The child clapped, and the crowd cheered. The event coincided with what would have been London Pride, had it not been for the pandemic, and demonstrators encountered a few people in rainbow-coloured outfits who also raised their fists in the air.

The five-day inquest into Shukri’s death was adjourned in late February. The two children who had joined the group of girls were exonerated after they testified that they tried to help save Shukri. Upon realizing that they couldn’t, they made their way to the local police station in Bury to report what had happened. The senior coroner on the case commended them for their bravery. Both children testified against Child One during the inquest. One said they blamed Child One for Shukri’s death since she had swum away from her.

The final hearing date, which will likely focus on testimony from Child One, has yet to be set. Though we may never know the full truth, the girl’s statement will be vital in determining what happened that evening, and who, if anyone, should be held culpable. The Independent Office for Police Conduct completed a separate investigation into the Greater Manchester Police in January, the results of which will be released after the inquest closes.

The day before the global Justice for Shukri demonstrations – a year after her eldest daughter’s death – Zamzam welcomed a sixth child into the world. He would have been Shukri’s third brother. It is nothing short of a tragedy that she didn’t live to greet another sibling. And it is an injustice that Zamzam still does not have clarity on what happened to Shukri that night.

What exactly do we mean when we say Justice for Shukri Abdi? And what if her death was an unfortunate accident, as the police were quick to posit? Seeking justice isn’t about lashing out or finding someone to blame, as solicitor Attiq Malik said on the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show in August. Justice necessitates an adequate and fair investigation into what happened to Shukri, not just at the river that evening, but also in the months that preceded her death and in the hours after it. Justice is about taking the testimony and grievances of Zamzam as seriously as authorities might consider the testimony and grievances of a white British mother. And it is about treating the life and death of Shukri with the same care and attention that is afforded to white, British girls.

In the meantime, activists continue to push for justice. In the words of a speaker at the June 27 protest, in lieu of that justice, ‘people must keep saying her name, louder and louder and louder, until it is finally heard: Shukri Abdi, Shukri Abdi, Shukri Abdi.’

Author photo credit: Maria Wilson