The refugee schoolgirl always came home on time, until one day she didn’t, sparking a high-profile campaign for justice
At 7.34pm on Thursday 27 June 2019, Zamzam Arab Ture, a Somali refugee in Bury, made a frantic 999 call to police. The line was bad and her English was poor. She said her daughter had gone missing.
Ture had spent more than three hours on that hot summer’s day running around searching everywhere she could think of for Shukri Yahya Abdi. The 12-year-old had been due to come straight home from school, as she did every other day. She always came home in time to attend sessions at the local madrassa by 5pm. She was a diligent student, loved attending the religious school and was due to take an exam that was important to her.
As the minutes crawled by with no sign of Shukri, a knot of panic tightened in Ture’s stomach. She was particularly anxious because Shukri had often been distressed by, and complained about, bullying at her school, Broad Oak sports college, which later closed down and reopened as Hazel Wood high school. Ture said she had repeatedly been to the school to raise concerns about the alleged bullying.
Mother and daughter were extremely close. Ture was 17 when she gave birth to Shukri in a Kenyan refugee camp after fleeing conflict in Somalia. “Shukri often helped me with the younger children. She was always cleaning up around the house to help me, and worked hard with her studies. She dreamed of studying hard so she could become a doctor and help people.”
Ture said the family had to wait in the refugee camp for more than a decade before being airlifted to safety in the UK as part of the vulnerable persons resettlement scheme. “Shukri was so excited to be coming to the UK,” she said. “When we arrived here in January 2017 things were OK for Shukri at primary school, but she experienced so much bullying at Broad Oak sports college. Every day she was telling me something bad had happened.” Ture said Shukri told her the bullies would sometimes stamp on her toes and once they pushed her into the road.
When Ture called 999, thoughts about the bullies raced through her mind. She never dreamed that Shukri could have drowned in the River Irwell. “But by 11pm I knew she was dead,” said Ture. Just under an hour later Shukri was formally pronounced dead, having been recovered from the river. Her school uniform was found on the riverbank. Ture gave evidence to the inquest that her daughter could not swim.
A coroner on Friday concluded that the schoolgirl’s death by drowning was an accident.
Ture’s grief at the loss of her child has not abated. At several points during the inquest she left the courtroom crying and distraught. Some of the evidence was too painful for her to hear.
Zamzam Arab Ture, Shukri’s mother. Photograph: Christopher Thomond/The Guardian
Parts of the accounts about the last year and the last day of Shukri’s life were contested in the evidence heard during the inquest. Ture said her daughter was badly bullied in the 12 months before her death, yet an internal investigation by the school disputed this.
The inquest heard from one child, known as Child Five, who did not go to the river, that Child One and Child Two had come looking for Shukri after school on the day of her death. They wanted her to go with them, but Child Five said Shukri had seemed reluctant to do so. Some sort of disagreement between Shukri and Child One and Child Two took place at the bus station in Bury where they went after school.
Child One was in foster care. Shukri and Child One and Child Two went there for a meal of pasta and juice before heading to the river. The foster carer told the inquest that all three children were laughing and having fun at her home.
She also gave evidence that after Shukri’s death, Child One told her she had threatened to kill Shukri but had said it as a joke. Child One’s personal tutor, David Stockdale, praised Child One but said her social skills were limited. He referred to an incident involving biscuits, saying Child One had told him: “You better not eat them all or I’ll kill you.”
The senior coroner for Manchester North, Joanne Kearsley, commended Child Four and Child Three, who both tried to save Shukri’s life, for their bravery.
Accounts from the four children at the river with Shukri of what happened in the final hour of her life differ. Child Four said Child One and Shukri went out to where the water was deeper, just below shoulder height for Child Four.
Child Four said Shukri seemed untroubled in the deeper water when she had her arm on Child One’s shoulder, but appeared to get into difficulties when Child One let go of her and swam back to the other children.
Child One said she accidentally pushed Shukri into deeper water shortly before she drowned after Shukri had grabbed her legs.
At Shukri’s funeral, hundreds of people gathered to mourn her. Members of the local community and anti-racism campaigners led chants of “Shukri’s life mattered” and held a banner saying “Justice for Shukri Abdi”.
The local councillor Tahir Rafiq was at Shukri’s graveside when she was buried. “It was very emotional, it felt to all of us like we had lost one of our own daughters. The mosque was full of mourners, her mother was so distraught. It was an incredibly sad day for the whole community and one that we won’t forget for a long time,” he said.
Protests on behalf of the girl who arrived in the UK so excited and full of dreams for her future have grown as concerns about the circumstances of her death have intensified. Campaigners have questioned the role of structural racism in the way Ture’s alarm about bullying was dealt with and the way Shukri’s death was investigated.
She has been adopted as an icon by the Black Lives Matter movement internationally. The Star Wars actor John Boyega, Malcolm X’s daughter Ilyasah Shabazz and the US rapper and actor Ice Cube are among supporters of the campaign for justice for Shukri.
A spokesperson for Hazel Wood high school said: “As a school community we were very saddened when we learned of Shukri’s death. Shukri was described by one of her teachers as a joy to have in class, and is remembered as a happy and smiling girl at school. We note the coroner’s findings that this must have been a traumatising event for all of the children involved – most importantly for Shukri who tragically lost her life whilst with her friends.
“We are comforted that the inquest process has been thorough and welcome the findings that there is no evidence Shukri was pushed into the river, the coroner recognising that there has been unhelpful speculation and rumour about this.
“Our thoughts remain with Shukri’s family and we continue to extend our condolences to everyone who knew her.”