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1 July 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:55pm

Volunteering at Grenfell, I saw a community taking on the burden of care

Dedicated locals are giving the support still so deperately needed.

By Hannah Sokoya

The horror of Grenfell is underlined by the grandeur of Kensington and Chelsea’s sumptuous palazzos. Walking through these neighbourhoods feels as if you’ve entered some cathedral purpose built to make you feel insignificant. Each home has a perfectly-placed bay window and columns. Yet this classical symmetry feels unimpressive now, because it simply reminds me of the poverty just round the corner.

You just have to walk along Bramley Road, from the Co-op to Latimer Christian Centre, and the deprivation cries out. The wire fences and cones are reminiscent of the half-finished building projects you’d find in Spain. It’s a blast of diverse dialects and dress codes, cramped flats and estates. You can see the sheer survival in people’s eyes.

Visiting the West Way centre illustrates how many have given up on Kensington and Chelsea’s organisational skills. The graffiti “The Rotten Borough” over a street sign said it all. Over and over, victims, charities and other local authorities described how Kensington and Chelsea was a let down.

Volunteering at Grenfell Tower three times in the past week, I have swung between feeling absolutely useless and feeling honoured to be involved.

I met many Wandsworth and Richmond council workers, and Transport for London employees who were stepping in to help. The volunteers seemed to make things happen with whatever was available, as if we were in some black and white film about the Blitz.

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I met many people who had travelled far to do their bit. One man told me how he came across the burning tower on that apocalyptic night, before the emergency services even arrived, and how the experience has motivated him to leave his east London home every day at 5am to assist West Way Centre ever since.

Another volunteer from south London felt strongly that it took too long for the government and the local authority to get their act together.

I rang a woman who had put her name and phone number outside a community centre, stating that she was looking for volunteers. When I asked her how I could be of assistance, she told me that she was busy delivering food to victims. She sounded completely stressed and burnt out.

I was shocked that ten days after the event, in the third richest country in the world, the government was not able to supply adequate meals to distraught and uprooted families.

The woman explained that some residents have been placed in bed and breakfasts, and since they don’t get any other meals throughout the day, volunteers have to feed them lunch and dinner. She also mentioned how some victims would arrive at the council just minutes too late to pick up their money and no leeway was given.

From many that I spoke to, there was an overwhelming sense that the council has been heartless and disinterested. It is even more surreal when I think of the centre-stage story in the mainstream media of how victims will be permanently rehoused in a luxury complex including a 24-hour concierge, swimming pool, sauna, spa and private cinema.

From the conversations I had, it seems that many Grenfell residents are stuck in high-rise hotels and their everyday burdens are not being alleviated; which makes Hollywood, sugary narratives of penthouse accommodation really stick in the throat.

Still, the locals are getting on with helping. One example was the Sikh temple on Queensdale Road, which has been feeding passers-by delicious homemade traditional food opposite West Way centre, every single day. They do shifts of around ten hours. Hungry volunteers, victims, mourners, and bored children all get the same heartfelt service.

One of the local leaders, Singh Bhupinder, proudly shared the Sikh philosophy which underpinned the support. He has a saying: “Pain shared is halved, love shared is doubled.” This has helped to maintain peace at such a precarious time.

When locals get frustrated with the council, he retorts: “Don’t be a demander, be a commander.” Sikhs, he told me, believe they should “always be prepared”. He felt the disaster had shown people that they have “more power, ability and resources” than the distant state.

Meanwhile, community vigils have helped to recognise the trauma and calm potential violence. One night, 300 Eritreans held a vigil. On another, it was the turn of 400 Bengalis. One sentiment I heard from the volunteers was: “People want me to fight, but we won’t.” I was reminded of the absence of positive footage I had seen of the many black men working tirelessly to serve the community. Yet black men involved in a violent act make it to the front page in seconds.

There are so many untold stories at Grenfell. Another Sikh volunteer told me how he stayed up into the small hours of the morning talking to a teenager who had been made homeless because of the fire. I met another woman who lost 15 friends. Adding to her devastation was the idea that their deaths would never be acknowledged, because they were living there illegally.

Even with the volunteers’ goodwill, though, it has not been easy for people to come to terms with their situation. At West Way, locals seemed frustrated by victims who refused any handouts. They talked about the need to forget one’s pride. But to me, it seemed that culturally, people have been dealing with suffering very differently. Leaders from each community group will need to teach the authorities how to connect, before even basic trust can be established.

This communication is badly needed – residents ask questions and are getting no answers. Many volunteers had obviously not been briefed. There was confusion over how the funds raised for victims would be distributed.

In stark contrast, a group of creative professionals are trying to establish a path towards a public inquest, said Nii Sackey, the founder and CEO of Bigga Fish.

Sackey explained the immediate need to collect primary evidence after such a tragedy, using the example of the TV show, CSI. He believes residents have not yet found a means of articulating what happened to them, and this is why grassroots groups are trying to create a place where their unfiltered experience can be aired.

The group have used the pillars that underpin a bridge in Maxilla social club, behind Latimer Community Church, to explore different themes in the process of healing. One pillar is for evidence, another for truth, and others for questions, solutions and honour. The art is alive and ongoing, as those affected continue to share their evidence. The block rainbow colours act as a vibrant backdrop for the messages people share. At the top of the main wall, a note reads: “The truth will not be hidden.”

Kiran Chahal, who works with “The People’s Kitchen” and helped to organise the evidence gathering, told me: “The local council cover their culpability rather than show care…the groups affected by Grenfell are not a middle class white community who know how to articulate their suffering and call for justice.”

The participants plan to “immortalise those responsible” in a mural covered in flames, a reflection too of the way the dead have been immortalised in the burnt embers of the tower. This was the most moving art I could imagine, where the unrepresented, the silenced and the demeaned are finally given centre stage to tell their story.

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