'It's unacceptable': Family forced into basement by bug infestation

A mother-of-five living in social housing says she's been battling an infestation of bedbugs and cockroaches so bad that her children have asked to return to their politically unstable homeland.

Meram Saleh Sogui says children have asked to return to their politically unstable homeland

Meram Saleh Sogui has packed all the food from the kitchen of her Ottawa Communtiy Housing home and is keeping it in the basement so cockroaches can't get at it. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

A mother-of-five living in social housing says she's been battling an infestation of bedbugs and cockroaches so bad that she's thrown out most of her belongings and her family has moved to the basement to seek refuge.

For the past year, Meram Saleh Sogui — a refugee from Chad, now a permanent resident in Canada — has been trying to get building administrators with Ottawa Community Housing (OCH) to deal with the problem, showing them videos of cockroaches and bedbugs ravaging her children in the upstairs bedrooms. 

The problem has gotten so severe that her oldest children, Saleh Sogui said, have asked to return to their politically unstable homeland.

"They are neglecting us," said Saleh Sogui.

"I try to convince them: 'Just come and look!' You can see the situation. My kids are sleeping on the floor because of the insects biting them at night. It's a really horrible situation."

Some of the various insects captured by a trap in Meram Saleh Sogui's home. (Radio-Canada)

Saleh Sogui said OCH did send a pest control company six months ago, despite the fact she's been complaining since last November.

The company performed a single treatment each for cockroaches and bedbugs, but she said the technicians warned it was a "Band-Aid" solution.

Sure enough, within a week the bugs were back, she said.

Finally Saleh Sogui said the Children's Aid Society got involved, prompted by a call from one of the children's teachers who visited the home last month.  

Meram Saleh Sogui is a refugee from Chad who's been trying to get public housing managers to deal with a serious infestation of cockroaches and bedbugs in her rowhouse. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

"Thank you so much to her teacher," said Saleh Sogui, her hands clasped together.

She credited the involvement of CAS for another bug treatment last week, as well as what she said was the first in-person visit from someone from OCH.

During that visit, the OCH staff member recognized the problem was an emergency, Saleh Sogui said, and told the family they would be moved temporarily for several months so that major pest eradication work could begin.

Saleh Sogui said she saw their new place last week.

"I'm picking up the keys Monday."

Neighbour shares bug infestation

Eliminating a major infestation at a rowhouse will only work if all the other units are targeted, said Norma-Jean Quibell, housing advocate for Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN) Ottawa.

CBC spoke to the neighbour who shares a wall with Saleh Sogui. They said their family, which includes six children, has been dealing with a similar infestation.

That home also had a treatment last week, the neighbour said, but the family hasn't been told to move out — nor did they know major work was planned for next door.

"There seems to be a lack of organization and a lack of empathy towards these people," Quibell said.

Meram Saleh Sogui says the scars on the legs of one of her five children are from bedbugs. Saleh Sogui says her children would have sleepless nights because of the insects and would fall asleep in class during the day. They've since asked to return to Chad. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

More proactive approach sought

In an email, OCH said it couldn't comment on the family's situation for privacy reasons.

"Pest management is a priority for the Ottawa Community Housing Corporation and we take this issue very seriously," said the statement.

OCH said it has a toll-free complaint service, which Saleh Sogui said she tried to use, both by herself and through advocates like ACORN — to no avail.

ACORN is now seeking a more proactive approach like the one adopted in Toronto last year, which would include regular inspections of rental buildings.

ACORN has also called for a pilot project of the RentSafeTO program, but the idea did not garner enough interest Friday during a meeting of Ottawa's community and protective services committee.

The committee did support some recommendations to improving how the city handles infestations, adding two new inspectors and creating a database to keep track of problems.

Norma-Jean Quibell is with the social advocacy group ACORN. Her group wants to see the city adopt proactive inspections of public and private rental properties, because she says the complaint system is failing tenants. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)

Life in the basement

For now, Saleh Sogui and her family are sleeping on the concrete floor in the basement, where the bugs don't seem to show up, their food stored in Rubbermaid containers.

During the worst of the infestation, Saleh Sogui said her children would nod off in school, having been woken up by bugs in the night.

She said her older teenagers have asked to return to Chad — a country dealing with violence and terrorism and which has received Canada's highest-risk travel advisory — rather than live with the merciless infestation that's taken over the home. 

"I try to give them hope," said Saleh Sogui, adding that she tells her children they'll one day leave social housing and work to improve conditions for others.

"If any person is living in this situation, the city should know: it's unacceptable."

Meram Saleh Sogui and her five children sleep now in the basement, safe for now from the bedbug infestation on the upper floors. (Amanda Pfeffer/CBC)