FEATURE-Survivors of Britain's Grenfell inferno homeless for Xmas

by Adela Suliman | @adela_suliman | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 13 December 2017 18:13 GMT

A floral tribute is seen near the Grenfell Tower, which was destroyed in a fatal fire, in London, Britain July 15, 2017. REUTERS/Tolga Akmen/File Photo

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"The people in charge of assisting those most affected, giving them houses and offering them services, are the very people who are regarded as responsible for it"

By Adela Suliman

LONDON, Dec 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Six months after one of the worst fires in modern British history, a charred tower block stands tomb-like on the London skyline - a deathly reminder of an inferno that killed 71 people and has left hundreds homeless at Christmas.

The fire that engulfed Grenfell Tower on June 14 exposed stark societal gaps within one of Britain's richest boroughs, home to a roll call of millionaires, as well as the working poor and immigrants who have made the district their home.

Accusations of disregard for those in social housing who suffered terrible deaths and of lax oversight by the people charged with their care have been levied by many survivors, who say their needs remain unmet.


Memories of the blaze remain strong.

As fire snaked its way around the west London tower block that faces his home, Joe Delaney recalled scrambling out of bed and frantically knocking on neighbours' doors.

"It was utter chaos," said the 37-year-old, who heard what sounded like popcorn cooking as cladding exploded off Grenfell.

Delaney, along with hundreds of survivors, now lives in a hotel and will likely spend this Christmas in temporary housing.

"It's absurd that six months later, the council cannot manage to house all of these people," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Whilst you're still here, it's very hard to put anything behind you," said Delaney, an insurance and risk consultant.

Residents have roundly criticised authorities for a slow response to the crisis and poor planning in its aftermath.

The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea council (RBKC), which runs the area, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that 300 staff were working nonstop to rehouse people.

The leader of the council stepped down after the fire and his replacement, Elizabeth Campbell, said in a statement that she did not want to rush people.

"We will continue to move at the pace of individuals and families involved - no-one should be rushed into making important decisions about where they are going to live."

RBKC said 99 households had moved out of hotels - 45 into permanent homes and 54 into temporary ones. A further 38 have accepted permanent homes but have yet to move.

Women sing and pray near the Grenfell apartment tower block in North Kensington, London, Britain, June 17, 2017. REUTERS/Hannah McKay/File


Ali Ibrahim, 27, was in bed at his home in the shadow of Grenfell tower, "when all of a sudden I heard screams outside." He immediately knew something horrible had happened.

Ibrahim watched with stunned bystanders as the fire swelled and the smell of melting plastic filled the air, while residents trapped inside cried out of windows, desperate for help.

Many of Ibrahim's friends remain unhoused, he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, and while the community had rallied round, efforts by the council had not been good enough, he said.

As dawn broke and the fire continued, floods of volunteers and local residents mobilised ad-hoc relief efforts in hubs around Grenfell, many of them faith centres.

Community leader Fahim Mazhary, who works with the Al Manar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, can still see the charred carcass of Grenfell from his window.

Mazhary lost friends in the blaze while his son remains traumatised from speaking on the phone to a friend who was trapped on the 24th floor during the fire.

He escaped carrying his mother; his father died.

"We are definitely ourselves affected...It's personal," said Mazhary.

"The speed with which the fire was spreading was absolutely shocking," said Mazhary. "It was so real - it was unreal."

Mazhary heard screams, prayers and cries as the fire raged and, like many, felt helpless. He has now undergone counselling.

The National Health Service is treating many other locals for post-traumatic stress disorder.

Numerous funerals have still not taken place, said Reverend Mike Long of the Notting Hill Methodist Church, as remains have only recently been recovered and identified.

His church became a focal point for initial relief efforts with members of the public stuffing cash into donation boxes. About 25,000 pounds ($33,000) was distributed on the spot.

"We were inundated," he said.

Trauma still haunts the community, so the church hosts therapy projects and stays open overnight to support survivors.

Long said he'd never dealt with anything similar to the scale of Grenfell and often feels inadequate and overwhelmed.

"There's a continuing mixture of horror, anguish, anger and frustration," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The biggest issue, he said, remains a lack of engagement by the local authority with the community, which has created a "toxic environment" and little prospect of healing.

"The particular dilemma here, of course, is that the people in charge of assisting those most affected, giving them houses and offering them services, are the very people who are regarded as responsible for it," he said.

The tragedy has prompted debate and soul-searching about London's stark social inequalities and whether neglect of social housing estates played a part in the fire.

Volunteers prepare supplies for people affected by the Grenfell Tower block which was destroyed in a fire, in north Kensington, West London, Britain June 15, 2017. REUTERS/Stefan Wermuth/File


A criminal investigation is under way that could result in individuals or organisations being charged.

A separate public inquiry led by a retired judge began this week to shed light on any flaws or irregularities in the design, construction or maintenance of the tower.

On Monday, a further enquiry was launched by Britain's Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to investigate the human rights dimensions of the tragedy.

A national memorial service will take place at St Paul's Cathedral on Thursday with senior members of the royal family as well as Prime Minster Theresa May set to attend.

A silent community march takes place at Grenfell each month.

For those made homeless by the blaze, there are mixed opinions over the tower's future.

Some want to demolish it in favour of community housing; others want it to stand as a symbol of the tragedy.

"We can't avoid it," said Mazhary. "It's a reminder of death... of false promises and corporate greed."

($1 = 0.7496 pounds)

(Reporting by Adela Suliman; editing by Lyndsay Griffiths. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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