In the Shadow of Grenfell Tower

24 July 2017
Akram Salhab

More than a month ago, a devastating event irrevocably changed our neighbourhood of North Kensington. Grenfell Tower, one of the most prominent buildings in the area, went up in flames, taking the lives of eighty of its residents. The tragedy has touched the lives of everybody in the neighbourhood – the families and friends of those killed, the residents whose homes and possessions were destroyed and those nearby who live in the shadow of the building’s burnt out shell.

Anybody who has been to the neighbourhood since will have sensed the palpable feeling of anger, trauma and grief. In the first few days, people could be seen weeping in the streets, friends with arms around each other trying to make sense of what had happened. Today, the neighbourhood’s walls and shop windows are still covered with photos of the missing, and posters of the justice campaigns that have sprung up in the area. The weeks since the fire have done little to blunt the sheer shock at what has taken place.

For many, Grenfell Tower epitomises the contempt with which their community has long been treated. They see in its charred remains a perfect storm of racism, neoliberalism, corporate greed and unfair immigration enforcement that has blighted their lives, a perception further affirmed by the lacklustre response from the bodies tasked with supporting and representing them. The slow and inadequate reaction to the fire revealed the neglect that has governed the area, and has laid bare the heartless policies that have blighted the lives of local residents.

No more a horrific example is required than the situation surrounding the undocumented residents of Grenfell Tower and the local area. Such is the level of inhumanity with which migrants are treated, that those who survived the fire were fearful of approaching emergency staff lest they be sent to the misery of a detention centre and forcibly deported from the county. The reality of life in modern Britain is one in which such cruelty is considered likely and, with only a 12-month stay having been granted, may yet come to pass.

Migrants Organise, based ten minutes from the tower, has experienced the aftermath of the fire through our members, most of whom are local residents from migrant and refugee backgrounds. Like many other local organisations, we were immediately swept up in the spontaneous local response to the fire: accounting for our members, sorting through donations, quashing rumours, locating space for funerals and wakes and supporting survivors.

It is difficult to give a sense of the sheer scale of this response, with virtually every local institution being transformed into a bustling centre of activity. The Westway Sports Centre and Aklam Road became enormous sorting sites for donated clothing and food. Local churches and mosques became drop in centres, and the North Kensington Law Centre had 200 lawyers volunteer their time to support residents. Sports Centre employees became organisers of tonnes of aid, undergraduate students created networks of translators and interpreters, free psychotherapy and therapeutic support services sprang up and Muslim groups produced dozens of volunteer key workers, supporting those who felt they had nowhere else to turn.

These incredible voluntary efforts, however, do not compensate for the very real absence of leadership from local and national government. The first few days were characterised by a confusion and chaos that has only marginally diminished in the intervening weeks. Only a few days ago, exasperated residents came to our office complaining of only having been given £150 to live off for a month. Others came in bewildered by the five different telephone numbers they had been given, none of which responded to their calls or addressed what they needed.

As an organisation with two decades experience working for the rights of migrants and refugees, none of this is new to us. We have become accustomed to statutory bodies ignoring the rights of our members, with their needs and concerns routinely overlooked. Our strategy has not been to replace these services, but rather, to work with our members to claim their rights and insist that statutory bodies are there for them too. We realise the only way of changing a status quo in which migrants and refugees are continually marginalised is by organising to overturn the exclusion of our members in the face of bureaucracy and neglect. In short, to organise our community power.

Whether through actions and protests, media work or advocacy, we believe that the community’s unity and collective power is the core of our strength. In the coming months and years, this will require a robust support structure for survivors so that they can challenge any efforts to play down or diminish the significance of the injustice on which the Grenfell Tower fire has shone a new light.

One area in which concerted and coordinated efforts are required is the Public Inquiry into the fire and its causes. Despite misgivings about the judge and his suitability for the role, our members are prepared to participate in the Inquiry and have requested our support in making submissions to the Terms of Reference. They want to ensure the Inquiry is not limited to the immediate causes of the fire but looks at broader, longstanding concerns to do with housing, austerity, discrimination, democratic inclusion and representation.

We see the Inquiry as an opportunity to both establish the truth and paint a picture of the wider context that lead to the tragedy of Grenfell Tower. Together with our members, residents groups, local voluntary organisations and faith institutions we will be ensuring that the Inquiry’s remit reflects the views and interests of our community, and adopts a holistic and thorough approach on why and how this tragedy took place.

The first stage of this engagement is the call for submissions to the Terms of Reference, which will determine the scope of the Inquiry. All individuals and organisations connected with the fire are entitled to make submissions about what they want to see addressed.

The deadline for the submissions has been extended to the 4th of August 2017. To  learn more about how to make a submission please click on our information page. The Grenfell Inquiry Terms of Reference Consultation – How to Have Your Say

1 Comment. Leave new

stephanie white
27 July 2017 11:05 am

Firstly
I fail to understand how the government did not consider this a national emergency which required a logistical effort beyond the experience and manpower resources of the local authority.
Why were action plans for a civil emergency not put into place?
Secondly
I entirely endorse the need to enquire more deeply into the deprivation behind the experience of poorer members of the community. I am shocked by the inadequate provision of living expenses reported and the lack of state as opposed to voluntary support in the aftermath of the fire
Thirdly
I would hope the enquiry would address the effects of the austerity programme on resourcing.
The fire service with no ladders, the building regulation with no teeth…

Finally
We need to cover the building . But not in a way which denies the existence of the tragedy and the lives of those who died. The current Soul of a Nation exhibition at the Tate Modern shows how murals in public places can record the struggles and triumphs of a deprived minority in society. Why can’t architectural fabric be used to create quickly a temporary Phoenix rising from the flames while the local community takes its time to decide what form a permanent memorial should take.

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