It's been one year since the fire at Grenfell Tower killed 72 people and left over 200 people homeless in London. Many of these families have still not been housed adequately, and the majority of families have not found permanent homes.
At 1:30AM on this day last year, I awoke to the sounds of police sirens and helicopters hovering above.
At first, I thought there must have been a drug-related crime near the tube station, but when I looked out of my bedroom window, I saw ambulances and fire engines in a frenzy.
I turned to Twitter—always quick for breaking news—and found a post about a building on fire up the road. The photograph was horrific. Someone else tweeted “Grenfell Tower is on fire”. I took videos of the helicopters and the fire engines, and got dressed to go see what was happening. The fire in my street began to make headlines on TV and radio channels around the world.
I arrived at the spot and found the area cordoned by police. The smoke was blinding. The tower was still on fire, though it had turned completely black from its charred steel.
Volunteers and charities from across London came to the rescue. Apart from those heroic Muslim youth who were instrumental in helping traumatised victims as soon as the fire began, the first people on the scene were Muslim charities, neighbours, and Anglican priests from the local church.
Mosques and churches, and then more slowly, the council, organised temporary shelter for the people who survived. People donated food, pampers and clothes.
On the night of the blaze, some of the first people to rush to help the victims leave the burning building were young Muslim men on their way to morning prayers. Many of them were awake and out and about for Suhoor, as it was Ramadan.
There was no hint of division. Londoners from all parts of the city contributed.
A few days later the community living around Grenfell Tower started to get angry. The anger against the council remains palpable a year after the fire, as many of the people who lost their homes have still not been rehoused adequately.
In the first few days after the fire, the authorities did little to help.
Rehousing the families has been a long process. The British Prime Minister Theresa May said after the fire every resident would be rehoused in three weeks but a year later, many of these families (15 by some counts) still live in hotels or temporary housing, which is shocking. Only 82 of the 203 households are in permanent housing. She didn’t keep her promise. People are still devastated and are heartbroken.
People asked Theresa May to come and meet the victims, but she took her time, and was criticised for it. The Queen of England, on the other hand, visited the site. She became far more popular than the prime minister as a result.
Phase 1 of the public inquiry into the fire started in May. I was there and for a week heard testimonies from families and friends of the victims who died last year. They all want justice and wanted to know why it has taken so long.
The inhabitants affected by the fire in this social housing tower were mainly poor British people, or immigrants or refugees.
The latter came from all over including Egypt, Iran, Morocco, Syria Sudan, Jamaica and other countries. They worked as bus drivers, cleaners; some were students; others were pensioners. Two Syrian brothers had been sent by their terrified family to Britain, hoping that they would escape death in Deir Ezzor. One of them ended up burning to death in London instead.
Some of the residents had large families; others were single people. They symbolised, in their own way, London’s vital diversity.
Once we got to know the victims through the hearings, the Grenfell Inquiry turned from emotional commemorative hearings to statements from lawyers representing bereaved families, building contractors and the London Fire Brigade.
This inquiry clearly has to deal with elements of race, religion and class. These are the important factors. Even if nothing happens, the question on record is important.
I agree with lawyers I have heard this week about the suggestion of institutional racism at the London Fire Brigade, the people involved in the rescue exhibited some of the bravest actions possible, but relatively simple adjustments such as the call centre having translators on standby or people with relevant languages to speak in a city as multilingual as London.
Boroughs like Kensington & Chelsea—where Grenfell Tower is situated and where the divisions of wealth (not simply class) are so stark—that there was a longstanding stonewalling of the poorer communities, and in fact, resentment that people in social housing might be accommodated in such a “prestigious” postcode.
Yet again, this comes down to communication. The Action Group were clear in their concerns about the tower. The building was a ‘death trap’ because of the cladding used according to experts. Issues were raised but inevitably neglected. I remember hours after the fire seeing bits of debris of the building all over the neighbourhood – in gardens, on the street. It felt like cheap foam.
I have great faith on the Grenfell community who have been amazing in their support, love and solidarity for one another. I found the tributes at the Inquiry not simply deeply moving but an articulation of the talent, humanity, and brilliance of those who have been lost.
Can such a fire happen again? I would like to think that this is the case which leads to stringent regulations that prevent another tragedy, and that lessons are learned about listening to marginalised communities – that they are real people and not simply obstacles in the way of selling off expensive real-estate.
Every 14th of each month, a silent march takes place to remember the victims of Grenfell Tower. This week will be very hard for bereaved families and the neighbourhood community, as the 14th of June will commemorate a year’s passing since the fire.
We have the names of 72 victims of Grenfell Tower but we have not yet given closure to the rest of victims of the tragic fire.
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