Family say racism played part in toddler’s death

The family of Awaab Ishak, the two-year-old toddler whose death was caused by a mould-ridden flat, has accused the housing association responsible for the home of racism.

Despite repeated cries for help by the family to their housing association, Rochdale Boroughwide Housing (RBH) took no action to deal with the mould.

Awaab died in December 2020, just days after his second birthday, due to a respiratory condition caused by the black mould found in the flat.

Joanne Kearsley, the coroner, said Awaab “died as a result of a severe respiratory condition caused due to prolonged exposure to mould in his home environment” and “action to treat and prevent the mould was not taken”.

“How in the UK in 2020 does a two-year-old child die as a result of exposure to mould?” she asked.

In a statement, Awaab’s family – who came here as asylum seekers — accused the housing association of racism.

“We have no doubt at all that we were treated this way because we are not from the country and less aware of how the systems in the UK work,” they said.

“Rochdale Boroughwide Housing we have a message for you – stop discriminating, stop being racist, stop providing unfair treatment to people coming from abroad who are refugees or asylum seekers, stop housing people in homes you know are unfit for human habitation.”

The case, which the coroner said is “a defining moment” for the housing sector, raises questions about damp and mould issues in homes, and how air quality affects children.

It also highlights the often harsh conditions those on the poverty line, especially refugees and migrants, are forced to endure.

“We shouted out as loudly as we could”

Awaab died after suffering a cardiac arrest brought on by respiratory failure. Fungus was found in his blood and lungs and inflammation suggested an allergic reaction. His cause of death was put down to “environmental mould pollution”.

His father Faisal Abdullah, who arrived in the UK from Sudan in July 2015, was told to paint over the mould by property managers. The mould returned and the family made repeated complaints and had asked to move home.  

In a statement, the family said Awaab had coughing fits that would last three days and they felt “trapped, anxious and fearful of what the mould was doing” to him.

“When Awaab died, our lives changed forever. Today, two years on, the coroner has found that our little boy’s prolonged exposure to mould led entirely to his death,” they said.

“We cannot tell you how many health professionals we’ve cried in front and RBH staff we have pleaded to expressing concern for the conditions ourselves and Awaab have been living in. We shouted out as loudly as we could, but despite making all of those efforts, every night we would be coming back to the same problem. Nothing was changing,” they said.

They added: “If RBH ever come across similar issues again – we hope they deal with it in a more humane, efficient, professional way than how they behaved with us.”

“We want to end by telling you who our beautiful Awaab was. He was always full of smiles, he liked to joke and was full of life and laughter. He used to enjoy playing on his bike and with his ball. He always wanted to be with us. His absence leaves a huge void.”

A broader issue with housing

The coroner said the property “was not equipped for normal day-to-day living activities, which led to excess damp and condensation.”

“This issue is not simply a Rochdale problem, nor is damp and mould simply a social housing problem, it is a significant issue in private sector too.

“There is little doubt that the tragic death of Awaab Ishak will and should be a defining moment for the housing sector.”

Gareth Swarbrick, chief executive of the housing association, said he is “devastated about Awaab’s death and the things we got wrong”.

“We didn’t recognise the level of risk to a little boy’s health from the mould in the family’s home. We allowed a legal disrepair process, widely used in the housing sector, to get in the way of promptly tackling the mould.

“We must make sure this can never happen again.”

Housing Secretary Michael Gove said Awaab’s death was an “unacceptable tragedy.” He summoned the head of the housing association, who earned £170,000 in the year of Awaab’s death, to a meeting about the issue.  

Image: Family handout


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