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My Lords, it is a great pleasure and privilege to make my maiden speech in this very important debate, secured by my noble friend Lord Whitty. I wholeheartedly support the aims of his Motion: I believe that a safe and secure roof over one’s head is a basic human right.
Since my introduction to this House, I have received a warm welcome from all sides, including from House officials and staff. I thank them all for that. I also extend my gratitude to my sponsors, my noble friends Lord Harris of Haringey and Lady Lawrence of Clarendon, and to my mentors, my noble friends Lady Wheeler and Lady Lister of Burtersett.
I am proud of my title: Baroness Osamor, of Tottenham in the London Borough of Haringey and Asaba in the Republic of Nigeria. It is a tribute to my late husband, Joseph, who died in a car crash, and to my father and mother.
I have been a proud member of Unite, my union, for over 40 years. It has afforded me many opportunities and I owe so much to it.
I was born in Nigeria in an era when very few girls went to school. My father, a progressive man, invested equally in all his children’s education, breaking down all cultural and social barriers when he ensured this for us. I left Nigeria in 1963 to join my husband in the UK. Against all odds, he had managed to rent a room in Tottenham, a place I still call home. I was a fully trained teacher and my husband was training to be a lawyer. On arrival in the UK, I experienced at first hand the hatred and discrimination against black people.
It was commonplace to see discrimination in housing in the 1960s, with adverts that stated, “No Dogs, No Irish, No Blacks”. During that era, the only viable housing option on offer for a young black couple was to accept very poor housing from landlords who exploited the bad situation. Most homes had no heating, no indoor toilet and/or no bathroom. We, like many others, felt the isolation and desperation of being on the receiving end of countless doors being slammed in our faces.
In contrast, back in Nigeria there were military coups, followed by the Biafran war, which initiated the displacement of my family. My family’s home was taken over by the Nigerian military. These defining factors delayed the well-thought-out plan that my husband and I had to return to Nigeria.
Finally, my husband made that long voyage home but it proved his last ever journey. Sadly, we lost him in a fatal car accident. My husband’s untimely death meant that I was now a widow in the UK bringing up a young family. When I look back at that time of mourning, it was the solidarity from my neighbours and friends that kept me afloat. I have nothing but admiration for the people I lived side by side with.
It was at that juncture that my personal and political life collided, leading me to work on building improved social connections with my neighbours for the betterment of all our communities. Collectively, as a community, we lobbied and addressed the primary issues of concern that impacted on us all. My lived experiences of getting involved in community activities provided dividends and led to my securing a job at Tottenham Law Centre, which did lots of housing casework, including on disrepair and homelessness. One of my many duties was to work with the families affected by the sus laws of the 1980s. The law centre continued to work with these mothers and families to help improve their lives. Together, we established and facilitated the creation of jobs for many left-behind families. I am proud to say that together we set up enterprise workshops, a co-op, a defence committee, a mothers’ project, a nursery and a youth association.
I look forward to sharing my lived experiences and knowledge in future debates. My commitment to change is a motto that I believe underpins my life. I finish with this quote from Maya Angelou:
“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them. Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud. Do not complain. Make every effort to change things you do not like. If you cannot make a change, change the way you have been thinking. You might find a new solution”.