Gren­fell Tower, one year on: com­mu­nity mem­bers dis­cuss

The Guardian Australia - - Opinion - Zain Miah, Cathy Long, Lucy Ma­soud, Daniel Ren­wick and Pil­grim Tucker

Zain Miah: I buried 43 of the 72 who died

As I travel to the var­i­ous ceme­ter­ies where those who we’ve lost lie on the first an­niver­sary, it will be an all too fa­mil­iar scene. I no longer need to search through my phone to find the grave mark­ings and num­bers for each per­son. I can stand in the grave­yard and look out, iden­ti­fy­ing in my mind who lies where, but un­for­tu­nately know­ing them only by name and the sto­ries of them shared with me by their fam­i­lies.

The first ever funeral I took part in was my fa­ther’s, in Au­gust 2016. Ex­actly a year on, I found my­self bury­ing sev­eral vic­tims of the Gren­fell fire. In all, I buried 43 out of the 72 who died. A stark re­minder of just how pre­cious and tem­po­rary our lives can be. And why, more than ever, the fight for good, jus­tice and kind­ness is needed.

How do you cope? It’s a com­mon ques­tion. The an­swer is sim­ple yet ag­o­nis­ing. The real­ity is that I have found a re­silient per­se­ver­ance within my­self, that same re­silience that we as a com­mu­nity found , the same re­silience that sur­vivors con­tinue to dis­play, and that same re­silience that will unite thou­sands as they mark the an­niver­sary.

My life has changed. Be­fore Gren­fell I had fo­cused on de­liv­er­ing aid to poverty-stricken re­gions abroad. Since Gren­fell, al­though in­ter­na­tional strug­gles bear im­mense weight among my pri­or­i­ties, my fo­cus has shifted more to­wards home, specif­i­cally to the role of za­kat (the Is­lamic prin­ci­ple of a “faith-based tax”) in sup­port­ing those in need here in the UK.

Though the re­mains of our loved ones were buried, their legacy and sto­ries re­main. We must use these sto­ries as an­chors in our ef­forts for jus­tice, our per­se­ver­ance and our com­mit­ment to en­sur­ing we never have to bury so many of our loved ones af­ter a tragedy ever again.

• Zain Miah is the founder and pro­ject man­ager for the Gren­fell Mus­lim Re­sponse Unit

Cathy Long: Why were the au­thor­i­ties so slow to re­alise we needed sup­port?

So much has been said and writ­ten about Gren­fell that it’s easy for us to think we have the an­swers al­ready. But many ques­tions re­main. It’s im­por­tant that we know what the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal con­di­tions were that led to so many mis­takes. If we don’t un­der­stand the broader con­text of reg­u­la­tion and power, then we’ve failed to learn the right lessons. Hav­ing been in­volved in the com­mu­nity re­sponse I want to know why the au­thor­i­ties were so slow to re­alise that we needed their sup­port.

Life has changed im­mea­sur­ably for many peo­ple here. Work and so­cial pat­terns have changed. I spend more time in churches and mosques than I ever imag­ined. The con­stant me­dia cov­er­age and the nu­mer­ous pub­lic meet­ings have been in­cred­i­bly stress­ful for the com­mu­nity. There is some­thing dif­fer­ent about deal­ing with grief in a very pub­lic tragedy, as op­posed to a pri­vate one. You can’t take hun­dreds of peo­ple out of an area and not see an im­pact. And lots of peo­ple work in the gig econ­omy or on zero-hours con­tracts and there is so much go­ing on – pub­lic meet­ings, see­ing lawyers, com­mu­nity ini­tia­tives, meet­ing with the au­thor­i­ties – that many have found it hard to spend enough time work­ing. But we pri­ori­tise each other now, not our jobs. It’s vi­tal that we un­der­stand the broader so­cial and eco­nomic im­pact that this is hav­ing on our whole area.

I’ve made a lot of friends in the last year; peo­ple who stood by each other in the dark­est of times, and they de­serve to know why they were failed.

• Cathy Long is a lo­cal res­i­dent and vol­un­teered at Not­ting Hill Methodist church af­ter the fire

Lucy Ma­soud: I feel the guilt of those of us fire­fight­ers not on duty that night

On the morn­ing of 14 June I awoke to the hor­ror at Gren­fell Tower. As a serv­ing fire­fighter based at Chelsea fire sta­tion, I watched the scenes un­fold on my TV in a com­plete state of shock. My first thought was that this must be a fire in a de­vel­op­ing coun­try, as fires like that do not hap­pen in the UK. When I re­alised it was Gren­fell Tower, a build­ing I knew well and a com­mu­nity that I have worked in for some time, my heart sank.

I was there the next day as a union rep to sup­port my col­leagues and over the fol­low­ing weeks spent time with many friends who fought the fire. The sto­ries they told haunt me to this day. My heart breaks ev­ery time I hear the word Gren­fell. I feel the col­lec­tive guilt of those of us not on duty that night. My work with the Fire Bri­gade Union de­mands that I spend a large amount of time within the lo­cal com­mu­nity around Gren­fell, yet no mat­ter how many times I look up at that tower, no mat­ter how many times I catch a glimpse of that build­ing, all I see is a mass grave stand­ing tall in west Lon­don, and it will al­ways take my breath away.

Now the pub­lic in­quiry has started, all we ask for is jus­tice – jus­tice for the 72 men, women and chil­dren who burned to death in the rich­est bor­ough in the UK.

• Lucy Ma­soud is a Lon­don re­gional of­fi­cial for the Fire Bri­gade Union and a serv­ing fire­fighter

Daniel Ren­wick: If you build with com­bustible ma­te­ri­als, ex­pect in­fer­nos

There is not an is­sue in Bri­tish pol­i­tics that Gren­fell doesn’t cut to the bone on. As a lo­cal videog­ra­pher and youth worker, I wit­nessed the af­ter­math of the fire from the morn­ing af­ter it be­gan. For a year, a scan­dalous com­pla­cency has been main­tained by those in power, mak­ing sur­vivors and be­reaved cam­paign­ers fight for fire safety.

Only af­ter lob­by­ing and huge pres­sure from Gren­fell United did the gov­ern­ment vow to end the night­mare for peo­ple liv­ing in high­rise build­ings wrapped in the equiv­a­lent of 30,000 litres of petrol by re­mov­ing the cladding. It is sim­ply not good enough.

The be­gin­ning of the pub­lic in­quiry has brought hope of jus­tice, as the truth laid bare is an em­pow­er­ing thing. How­ever, mis­un­der­stand­ing the pro­cesses of dereg­u­la­tion and ne­olib­er­al­i­sa­tion places lim­its on the search for truth. If they are not fully ex­plained, it will al­low those re­spon­si­ble to be ex­cused. The deeper causes are struc­tural; they are ide­o­log­i­cally un­der­pinned.

Gren­fell was not only fore­see­able, it was in­evitable. If you build with com­bustible ma­te­ri­als, ex­pect in­fer­nos. Poli­cies are writ­ten with flammable ma­te­ri­als at their core. When ig­nited, these ma­te­ri­als can make an in­ferno of a safe place.

Class con­tempt, in­sti­tu­tional in­dif­fer­ence and or­gan­ised state aban­don­ment brought Gren­fell into be­ing, and de­spite the prophetic words of the Gren­fell Ac­tion Group blog, not even a catas­tro­phe will lead those in power to see the er­ror of their ways. Brexit is a pro­ject of dereg­u­la­tion and bor­der regime pol­i­tics, it will make a bon­fire of Eu­ro­pean stan­dards and fur­ther nudge those in pre­car­ity to the mar­gins of Bri­tish life.

• Daniel Ren­wick is a lo­cal youth worker, writer and videog­ra­pher who made Failed By the State – the strug­gle in the shadow of Gren­fell

Pil­grim Tucker: With­out per­ma­nent homes, sur­vivors can’t be­gin to heal from their loss and trauma

De­spite ini­tial prom­ises to re­house those the fire made home­less within three weeks, a year later most are still not in per­ma­nent homes. Sev­enty-two Gren­fell fam­i­lies are still in emer­gency ac­com­mo­da­tion. Fifty-five are in tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion along­side an­other 74 af­fected house­holds from the wider Gren­fell area.

Many res­i­dents have been of­fered com­pletely un­suit­able ac­com­mo­da­tion: with too few bed­rooms, miles from key med­i­cal care, un­safe or in very poor con­di­tion.

Dis­placed res­i­dents from the blocks next to Gren­fell Tower, who are mostly now in tem­po­rary ac­com­mo­da­tion in the pri­vate sec­tor, be­lieved they would be al­lowed to keep their coun­cil rent lev­els un­til they were re­housed per­ma­nently. But the coun­cil has told them that they can only guar­an­tee rents un­til the end of this month. The terms of many of these prop­er­ties are in­se­cure, with break clauses mean­ing they could be asked to leave at any time.

Al­though RBKC has built fewer so­cial homes than any other Lon­don bor­ough in re­cent years, the hous­ing prob­lems the Gren­fell fire ex­posed were recog­nised as com­mon to coun­cils across Lon­don and much of the UK. In­stead of ad­dress­ing so­cial hous­ing in the Gren­fell pub­lic in­quiry, (as many sub­mis­sions re­quested) the gov­ern­ment has promised a “fun­da­men­tal re­think” and a green pa­per on so­cial hous­ing. To be any­thing more than a fig leaf, the green pa­per will need to pro­pose com­pletely lift­ing the lo­cal au­thor­ity bor­row­ing cap that pre­vents coun­cils from build­ing des­per­ately needed homes.

It will also need to start look­ing at how to re­verse the gov­ern­ment poli­cies im­ple­mented since 2010 that have ex­ac­er­bated the prob­lems cre­ated by decades of ne­olib­eral hous­ing pol­icy. 150,000 so­cial rent homes have been lost since 2012 through de­mo­li­tions, right to buy, and the rais­ing of rents from so­cial to so-called “af­ford­able” lev­els.

Gren­fell sur­vivors need per­ma­nent homes to be­gin prop­erly heal­ing from the ter­ri­ble loss and trauma of that night. In the wealth­i­est bor­ough of one of the rich­est cities in the world, that they don’t yet have them has sim­ply no jus­ti­fi­ca­tion. Theresa May said this week that she will “al­ways re­gret” her poor re­sponse in the days fol­low­ing the fire. With so many fam­i­lies still fac­ing in­def­i­nite home­less­ness, apolo­gies alone are not enough.

• Pil­grim Tucker is a com­mu­nity or­gan­iser and cam­paigner who sup­ported the Gren­fell Tower res­i­dents’ cam­paign, the Gren­fell Ac­tion Group

Pho­to­graph: Dan Kit­wood/Getty Im­ages

Gren­fell Tower.

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