The local Muslim community has shown tremendous resilience after suffering so many deaths
Anger smoulders one year on from Grenfell fire
In the shadow of the scaffolding-shrouded Grenfell Tower, a procession filed along the sunlit street outside a St Clements Church on Sunday at the start of a week of commemorations to mark the one-year anniversary of the fire that claimed 72 lives.
As the crowd watched, the Muslim Mayor of London Sadiq Khan, and the Bishop of London, Sally Mullally, opened a garden of dedicated to the victims and survivors of the fire.
It was a multiracial, interfaith audience joined by members of the police and fire responders.
“The fire last year shone a light on the inequalities in our city and our country, one of the richest in the world. But it also shone a light on the resilience and solidarity of this wonderful community,” Mr Khan said.
“We must make sure that those responsible are held to account. But we must also make sure that never, never again should another person lose their life, never again should a family grieve as the families are grieving, and never again should a community be affected like this one has been.”
The event marked the beginning of a painful week of commemorations for a disaster which shocked the United Kingdom, revealing stark divisions in British society.
The Grenfell story is inextricably linked to the Muslim residents of the tower and surrounding area. Of the dead, 47 were Muslim, and in the aftermath, the community demonstrated tremendous resilience.
Several Muslim families were up breaking fast during the early hours of June 15, and were able to knock on doors to alert neighbours. But many other Muslim families perished in the flames. Six members of the Choukair family died on the 22nd floor of the tower. Of the Belkadi family only a single child survived. Parents Omar Belkadi and Farah Hamdan died with their 6-month-old daughter Leena, while another daughter Malak later died in hospital.
Within hours of the fire, Muslim centres such as Al Manaar mosque in Acklam Road, a kilometre from the tower, were open as rescue centres, catering for people of all faiths. “A year ago, this was a site of panic,” Bellal El Guenuni told the Daily Mirror. “People had no clothes on their back, they were homeless, they were scared. The people who helped them were Muslim young people from this mosque, defying the stereotypes.”
The high number of Muslim deaths in the fire later raised questions as to whether institutional racism could have been at the heart of the fire brigade’s inability to save more people. Lawyer Imran Khan, who is representing 27 bereaved survivors and residents, claimed at the inquiry set up to investigate the causes of the fire that a reference to “foreign” residents in a fire-department statement suggests racism. “We simply ask the obvious question: did it have any impact on the way individuals were treated that night?”
The apportioning of blame began almost before the ashes cooled, as shock over the deaths of entire families turned to anger at authorities and their perceived culpability.
The government looked out of touch from the start. Prime Minister Theresa May visited the tower on the morning of June 16, but instead of meeting with survivors, she spent her short time there with police and fire-service commanders.
Hours later, the opposition Labour party leader Jeremy Corbyn – buoyed by an unexpectedly strong performance in the previous week’s general election – provided the response the public wanted from Mrs May. He met locals and pledged to get to the bottom of the tragedy.
This week the prime minister acknowledged her lacklustre response. “What I did not do on that first visit was meet the residents and survivors who had escaped the blaze,” she wrote in a column in the London Evening Standard. “The residents of Grenfell Tower needed to know that those in power recognised and understood their despair… I will always regret that by not meeting them that day, it seemed as though I didn’t care.”
The Conservative’s failings went beyond Ms May failing to meet survivors. In the days after the fire, the Conservative-run local council, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, was criticised for failing to provide immediate rehousing and counselling to survivors. Instead, charities and faith organisations stepped in to fill the gap.
A shelter for survivors was set up by the Rugby Portobello Trust, a 133-year-old organisation working in the area. Local mosques and churches received thousands of donations of clothing and other necessities from of ordinary people horrified by the sight of fellow Londoners losing everything.
“As soon as the fire started, volunteer teams were on the ground helping people find short-term accommodation, access to hot meals, sanitation, funeral services and counselling and adolescent services,” says Jehangir Malik, chief executive of charity Muslim Aid. “The utter mayhem was a shock… I honestly thought we had better disaster preparedness and response systems here in the UK.”
Local distrust of establishment institutions extended to the media. Residents found themselves swarmed by journalists who covered the story with what some saw as insensitivity. Tensions escalated to verbal and physical attacks on reporters.
In the months that followed, even the heroes of the night of the fire such as the London Fire Brigade were not immune to criticism. Their instructions to residents to remain in their flats until they were rescued – standard practice from previous incidents – were later seen to have contributed to the deaths of people who could have otherwise fled the building.
A year on, the community surrounding Grenfell Tower have begun to rebuild their lives. During his address at the St Clements service, the Bishop of Kensington, Graham Tomlin, invoked a hopeful vision for the future. “Imagine in 20 years’ time, looking back on Grenfell Tower. It was a trigger for a sea change in the way we looked after each other in our cities, the time that we decided once and for all to provide good quality, safe social and affordable housing, that we learnt to look out for one another, even to love one another as good neighbours, not just in times of disaster, but as a regular way of life.”