Grenfell left a stain on London's reputation as a global city with its arms open to the world
June 14 marks a day painfully etched in the memories of our community, and a haunting reminder to the rest of the world about the collective failures that led to one of the biggest calamities in British peacetime. Two years ago to the day, 72 people, including 18 children, died in the fire that consumed Grenfell Tower in North Kensington, London, within minutes. Many have since written about the tragedy that befell Grenfell; numerous stories have been told and much ink and paper spent on covering the aftermath. But the only story that can be told is by those who are living through the fallout, day after day. They, and the generations that follow, are the ones who will be impacted for years to come.
Two years on, anger, frustration and disappointment run high among the bereaved and survivors of the devastating fire, primarily because of a lack of action and the snail’s pace of implementing basic recommendations to prevent a similar tragedy happening again. At the heart of it lies deep contempt, its fracture lines of class and poverty laid bare in Britain’s richest borough. As Nigel de Noronba wrote in his book After Grenfell, Violence, Resistance and Response, it “reflects a return to the open hostility that the British ruling class have felt towards the working class and colonial subjects they ruled over”.
North Kensington has the highest level of deprivation in London, yet sits alongside central and South Kensington, where royals and oligarchs rub shoulders in some of the most expensive homes in Britain. The disparity is clear not just in wealth but in a 15-year gap in life expectancy. Yet North Kensington is home to a vibrant and ethnically, culturally and linguistically diverse community. Its population includes a large number of Moroccans as well as communities from the Caribbean, Portugal, Somalia and Spain. Most of those who died in Grenfell Tower had only been in the UK since 1990. A total of 80 per cent of the victims were Muslims; nearly one in seven were Moroccan. Other victims were Lebanese, Egyptian, Sudanese, Iraqi, Afghan, Syrian, Iranian, Spanish, Italian, Ghanaian and Eritrean.
That was reflected in the names and backgrounds of those who died in the blaze. Take Mohammed Al Haj Ali, a 23-year-old civil engineering student who had escaped the war in Syria, only to die when trying to escape his 14th floor flat. Or Fethia and Hania Hassan, aged four and three respectively, two bright little sisters who died along with their mother, Rania Ibrahim. Or Rabeya Begum, a loving mother who lost her life, along with her husband and three of her children. Or Moroccan university porter Abdulaziz El Wahabi, whose wife and three children were also killed.
Grenfell has left an indelible stain, not just on the North Kensington landscape but on London’s reputation as a global city with its arms open to the world. The scars of a collective trauma have not yet healed.
As we reach the two-year mark, few answers have been forthcoming and there has been no real change, despite numerous conversations and meetings with the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea (RBKC) local authority and the government, including the office of British Prime Minister Theresa May, Nick Hurd, the minister for policing and the fire service, and London mayor Sadiq Khan. The first phase of an independent inquiry into the circumstances leading up to the fire on June 14, 2017, has concluded but its report has yet to be made available. A second phase of the inquiry is not due to begin until next year.
It must be acknowledged that this event did not happen in a vacuum. Despite many warnings by the tower’s residents about fire and building safety, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation responsible for the building chose to ignore them. Residents were not consulted on the refurbishment of the tower with highly flammable cladding but were silenced and intimidated. That refurbishment, carried out by the authority and the tenant management organisation, effectively turned Grenfell into a death trap. Fire safety policies were out of date. The tenants were treated with disdain, looked down on and treated unfairly for years. That appalling mistreatment continued even in the aftermath of the fire.
The one positive outcome has been the strengthening of community spirit of people living in North Kensington and the wider support that Justice4Grenfell receives from all sections of society, both in Britain and elsewhere
The real lifeline in this tragedy came from volunteers, local organisations and mosques that provided support to those affected. As far as the authorities are concerned, the community was failed horribly before, during, and after the fire.
The major issue has been housing for families who lost their homes and possessions. This situation has not been helped by promises made and broken.
The first promise that was shattered was Mrs May’s pledge that all survivors would be rehoused within three weeks. Two years on, 16 families are still waiting in limbo. Earlier this week Kim Taylor Smith, the deputy leader of RBKC responsible for rehousing Grenfell residents, wrote: “We got the Grenfell housing process wrong and it’s time to apologise to survivors.” This apology will not help those who are still homeless, nor will it lessen the suffering and pain they have been subjected to. There are daily calls for help from families who have yet to be rehoused; some have even contemplated suicide.
The catalogue of failures were summed up by the MP John Healey, who told parliament: “Ministers have been frozen like rabbits in the headlights. Their action has been too slow and too weak on every front. There has been a failure to give justice to the Grenfell community.”
The fact Sir Martin Moore-Bick, the chairman of the Grenfell public inquiry, has not kept his promise either and still has to publish his report of phase one has just exacerbated the level of anger and anxiety among the bereaved, survivors and the local community, who are seeking justice and redress. Police leading the criminal investigation have made matters even worse by announcing they will not bring any criminal charges before the end of the second phase. This means people affected by the tragedy will have to wait at least five years before they can get any closure.
The government and RBKC are far removed from the reality of the local community. One of the most striking examples of this attitude can be seen in the development of a commission to oversee and manage a memorial park in place of Grenfell Tower. Bereaved families were so angry about the proposal that only five mourners could have a say and had to be voted onto the commission panel that they walked out of talks. They did not want to compete with each other while still grieving their loved ones.
All these issues have deepened the level of trauma experienced by the local community. Work is underway to form a five-year health and wellbeing recovery strategy but mental health facilities in the area are woefully inadequate. Cultural and faith-based therapies have proved more effective in helping many families.
The one positive outcome has been the strengthening of community spirit of people living in North Kensington and the wider support that Justice4Grenfell receives from all sections of society, both in Britain and elsewhere. That has strengthened our resolve to fight until justice is done, and a healthy and resilient community is rebuilt. This weekend will be marked with remembrances, vigils and – as has happened on the 14th of every month since the fire – a silent walk in memory of those who died. Earlier this week, Grenfell families launched legal action in the US against the manufacturers of the cladding used on the tower and projected messages onto buildings with similarly dangerous fittings in London, Manchester and Newcastle. As Kensington and Chelsea MP Emma Dent Coad says: “The time for platitudes is done.” Together, we hope we can effect change and that no death will have been in vain.
Nour-eddine Aboudihaj is from the Justice4Grenfell campaign
Updated: June 13, 2019 06:40 PM