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Opinion

Awaab Ishak’s shocking death will be the housing sector’s defining moment

The parents of Awaab Ishak brought him to this country for a better life. Instead, the damp conditions in his home killed him. He was only two

Which part of Awaab Ishak’s death is most shocking? That he died at all? That in Britain, in the third decade of the 21st century, a two-year-old child should be in a home with such terrible conditions that he, literally, couldn’t breathe; that the damp mould in this place of what should have been sanctuary killed him. Should that be the most shocking, the thing that makes us most angry?

There are other pieces to this awful story that do not sit well. Awaab’s father first alerted Rochdale Boroughwide Housing, the social housing authority who owned the property, about the damp in 2017. He was advised to paint over it.

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When little Awaab died in December 2020, his family, at their wits end trying to fix the terrible conditions, couldn’t get things sorted because a “legal disrepair process” prevented the work being carried out. That is, because there was a challenge in play to try and get the work done, the work couldn’t be done. Catch-22 and bureaucratic process stopped common sense and essential work. 

Awaab’s family are refugees, fleeing conflict in Sudan. This was their welcome. When some self-important MP, high on the hog with subsidised meals and subsidised bars in the Palace of Westminster, stands up and castigates the ‘four-star’ treatment laid out to refugees and those seeking asylum in Britain, send them a photo of Awaab Ishak. Send them a photo of the black, killer mould climbing unabated up the wall of the one-bedroom flat. 

It took the coroner at Awaab’s inquest to be the agent for essential change, saying the child’s death should be a “defining moment” for the housing sector. Problems extend well beyond Rochdale. It is estimated that there are almost a million homes in England alone that have “serious damp”. While they are not all social housing, two years on from the death of Awaab Ishak there is potential for further tragedies. 

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There are a multitude of major issues facing so many of us now. We all feel the impact of inflation and the shock of energy bill rises hammering in. As I write this, it’s unclear how Jeremy Hunt’s budget will impact the poorest, how any double whammy of tax rises and public spending cuts will usher in the new era of austerity. But it’s not going to be good for those with least. 

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What is also clear is that even when people speak up, they are ignored, like Awaab’s family. That is not good enough. That is far from acceptable. 

And so, at The Big Issue, we want to carry the fight on behalf of those who are marginalised and dismissed, or sent packing with excuses about bureaucracy and paperwork. We will remain angry and shocked at the death of little Awaab Ishak, but we will not accept any inevitability of another death like his. And we are here if you are one of those people trying to work in similar associations, also angry, keen to do the right thing, but overwhelmed by paperwork. 

Resources have been shredded and fewer people are being asked to do much more with much less. This is not about apportioning blame but making sure voices that need to be heard can be heard.

We will not be easily brushed aside. So come to us, tell us, and together we shall go forward.

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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