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14 July 2017

The Gardeners of Grenfell

"We have had no kind of big infrastructure, we just got on with it."

By Felipe Araujo

The makeshift memorial outside Notting Hill Methodist Church began with someone who had very little to give. “One guy arrived with his dog,” Cathy Long, one of the volunteers, says. “And he said ‘I’m homeless, I sell the Big Issue, I’ve no donations to give, but I brought this bouquet of flowers.’”

Alan and his dog, Lexi, were never seen again, but four weeks ago they unknowingly started something which has helped the bereft community. 

Shock has, for many, given way to sadness and grief. This place will continue to mourn the people who perished — at least 80 of them – and here outside the church that is expressed with flowers, football shirts with messages of condolences, postcards, and drawings by the local children.

“This is not just a nice display,” Cathy says while watering the flowers. “A lot of people come because they need somebody to talk to, they might need some counselling or they might need some help. Lots of them don’t want to walk into a church but they will always speak to a woman who is tending flowers.” 

At 8am on a hot Tuesday morning, Cathy and her friend, Miranda Boyer, are already hard at work outside the church. The two didn’t know each other before that tragic night, but watching them coordinate efforts, you get the impression they have been doing this for a long time, working tirelessly in the midst of a crisis, trying to help as many people as possible in any way they can.

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Cathy (left) outside the church. Picture: Felipe Araujo 

“We are fine,” the pair say almost in unison when asked about their state of mind. “It’s our job to be here and to be OK, because everybody else has had such a terrible time. That’s what’s been amazing about this community: everybody has just got on with it.”

The void left by the state in the wake of one of the greatest tragedies to hit this country since the Second World War, has made this tight-knit community rally together. 

Miranda has lived in the area for 56 years. A former local teacher, she knew many of the children and parents in Grenfell. Cathy, a scouser who runs a football consultancy firm, has lived in the neighbourhood for three years. For the past month, the two have found themselves playing the role of social workers, councillors, and cooks. Services that the local council — one the richest in Britain, — should be providing, but somehow cant. 

“We have had no kind of big infrastructure, we just got on with it,” Miranda tells me. “We are providing clothes, we do the cash donations, we shop for them, anything they need.  “One of the families that I support told me I’m now their PA. They are so traumatised, so distressed and they are made to go from one person to another, one centre to another and it’s too much.”

Throughout the day, people from all walks of life — many of them survivors of the fire —, stop by to pay their respects, lay flowers, or simply offer a helping hand.

For the past four weeks, Cathy and Miranda have heard harrowing stories: mothers who weren’t able to save their kids; elderly people trapped on the top floors; immigrants who arrived in this country with nothing, many of them fleeing war, and now will have to once again start from scratch.

For the two volunteers, however, the first day was the hardest: “After hours of working on the recovering operation, the firefighters would come here and look at the pictures of the missing people,” Cathy says. “It felt like they were trying to reconnect with the people that have been lost. They would leave flowers and say ‘We are sorry, we really tried.’ That really stayed with me.”

As residents try to piece their lives back together, the burnt-out tower looms over the surrounding streets.

In an eerily prescient blog post published last November, one of the members of the resident’s association wrote: “It is a truly terrifying thought but the Grenfell Action Group firmly believe that only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord… and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.”

People on the ground feel the country is run by institutions specifically designed to keep those in power free from any sort of accountability, regardless of political affiliation. 

“This not about particular politics but about the role of government in general, which has eroded the power of local government over many, many years,” Mike Long, the Minister at the Notting Hill Methodist Church says. “Social housing is now deemed to be second-class and second best.”

Many of the residents in Grenfell say they fell just that: second-class citizens. Sid-Ali Atmani is a father from Algeria who escaped with his daughter from the tower’s 15th floor. Last week, he stopped by the church to pay his respects to the neighbours he lost. He comes from a country where tragedies like this are more common than not, but did he ever think something like this would ever happen to him right here, in Britain? “We came to this country because we know there is a law, there is a system that will protect us,” he says. “But in this case where was the law, where was the protection?” 

As the inquiry is set to begin in September, those affected want two things to come out of it: a complete overhaul in public housing policy, and for the people responsible for the decisions that led to this tragedy to face the full force of justice. 

For Miranda, there is no question, what happened in Grenfell was criminal. “Oh, I’m extremely angry,” she says. “This was a needless fire, it was crime by neglect.”

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