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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 September 2018

The tragedy of Grenfell Tower: one month on

How local Muslim aid groups made the difference as a tragedy usually only associated with the developing world hit the richest part of the country

From the television screens, you think you know what Grenfell Tower will look like before you see it, but nothing prepares you for the grim malevolence of the charred shell at first sight.

It dominates this part of west London.Pedestrians are stopped in their tracks, standing stock still, staring at it. The blown-out windows and blackened facade are a mocking rebuke to the prosperous nation at large a month after a massive fire consumed the building.

It stands just off Latimer Road, a street where millionaires live cheek-by-jowl with some of the city's poorest communities.

Posters clutter every flat surface, from shop windows to telephone boxes, lamp posts and the thick concrete pillars of the Westway flyover, telling of the desperation the neighbourhood has seen in the month since the fire.

Dennis Kelly is a beloved ‘missing’ uncle in one poster and RIP in another stuck nearby. A mother and child ‘DIED’ in one version of their ragged memorial note, but they were ‘MURDERED’ in the later version.

Local landmarks are covered in flowers, including St Clement’s church, where prime minister Theresa May was jeered on her first and only visit three days after the fire. The crowd yelled ‘coward’ and ‘shame on you’ at her as she fled through a phalanx of police officers.

Finally there is a Truth Wall covered in colourful graffiti artwork that invites residents to ask and answer questions about Grenfell, its inhabitants and the tragedy that befell them.

The community mood is a mixture of resignation and distrust. Grenfell residents have fallen back on the local organisations that they know to sustain them.

Jehangir Malik, Muslim Aid's chief executive officer, said this was a reflection of the chaos he and his colleagues found when they first arrived on the scene. At the time the building was still burning. “Muslim Aid is an international agency, working in 70 countries around the world. Our current emergency appeals include the East Africa Food Crisis, Syria, Yemen and Gaza,” he said. “Poor infrastructure in developing countries is often a factor in the initial confusion, and it's difficult to give survivors clear information at the beginning. We were flabbergasted to find similar conditions on the ground at Grenfell.”

Muslim Aid is now part of the Grenfell Muslim Response Unit (GMRU) - along with Human Appeal, National Zakat Foundation and Islamic Relief - that works to support the displaced. Between 60 and 80 per cent of both the casualties and the survivors of the fire were Muslims, but the unit has provided for all.

Read more: In the wake of the Grenfell fire, is the cladding of buildings a matter of morality?

Staff member Lotifa Begum has been at the scene since day one. “What happened continues to traumatise the families I have met,” she said. “It is hard enough for me, after speaking with families who have lost the families I have met,” she said. “It is hard enough for me, after speaking with families who have lost everything, to try to restore some sort of normality to my life, but I know that for the families I have met, who have lost their loved ones or been injured or traumatised by the fire, their life will never be normal again.”

Since the fire that started in the early hours of June 14, and claimed at least 80 lives, the 24-storey tower block has served as a very visible rejoinder to those who claim that the nation must adhere to austerity economics; Jeremy Corbyn’s surprisingly strong performance at the general election just five days before the inferno gave an idea of the lack of appetite for more belt-tightening.

Comment: The Grenfell disaster has highlighted Muslim contributions to community

Like her colleagues, Ms Begum couldn’t believe how slow the local authority, Kensington & Chelsea council, , was to respond to the suffering. The council administers one of the richest districts in Britain, yet most families are still living in short term accommodation and relying on groups like GMRU or the Red Cross for hot meals, clothing needs and trauma care including counselling services.

“I have listened to heartbreaking stories these past days, including from one family who have lost five of their loved ones,Ms Begum said. "I heard one woman say: ‘My children still have nightmares and we are too scared to go back anywhere near that Tower.’ As a British aid worker, I have been in the field in Bosnia, Bangladesh and other places, but I never thought I’d be responding to a national disaster of this scale and nature here in London in one of the most affluent boroughs in the UK.”

The tireless efforts of the fire crews, ambulance teams and other first responders was one of the few bright spots of the events of a month ago. But even that point of pride has now become the object of rancour. Revelations this week that fire fighters at Grenfell were hampered by a lack of correct equipment and problems with their radios has shone another unwelcome spotlight on cutbacks in funding to the emergency services.

In the seven years of Conservative party rule, either in coalition or alone, they have enforced spending discipline on local councils. Kensington and Chelsea happily sent tax rebates back to its residents after trimming its budget..

Some London councils have had their funding from central government cut by more than 50 per cent since 2010. Many of them have been able to keep their core services for young and old people open only by scrimping on such things as housing repairs.

It is suspected that the cause of the fire at Grenfell lies in the use of sub-standard exterior cladding. This flammable material allowed the flames to take hold and spread rapidly. It turns out the material was chosen by contractors who were being pressured to save £300,000(Dh1.42million) on the 2014 renovation project.

Read more: Grenfell fire has global effect

As inspections of other blocks across the country soon proved, this was a widespread way to cut costs: “A disaster waiting to happen,” claims fire expert Sam Webb, who believes hundreds of tower blocks across the UK are affected. “We are still wrapping postwar high-rise buildings in highly flammable materials and leaving them without sprinkler systems installed, then being surprised when they burn down.”

Opinion polls suggest that Britons are willing to put their money where their mouths are and pay higher taxes in return for better services. The passions unleashed by the deaths in the Grenfell Tower is only fuelling public distrust of the establishment.

Readjustment to a new normal is only just getting underway at Grenfell. Only 14 of the 158 families evacuated from the building had accepted rehousing offers by last week.

Even with the support of charities, there are other grim challenges to be met.

"In coming days people will be burying their loved ones and I just pray for their strength to get through this tragic and difficult time," Ms Begum said. " This has got to be the greatest national disaster I have ever known. I have seen the grief and pain of losing a loved one but never on this scale. There has to be justice for the victims of Grenfell.”

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