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British Values

Grenfell Taught Us Some Important Lessons About the Meaning of 'Home'

If the council's new taskforce is going to attempt to heal the community, it needs to recognise what the word means to people who lost their homes in the fire.

Imagine you have been victim to a tragedy. Imagine you, or people in the building you live in, have been flagging the potential for that tragedy for years, and been ignored. Imagine, then, immediately after the tragedy, that not a lot really happens.

Members of the local community, strangers, come to help you with housing and food; they try to give you dignity. But at an official level: nothing. You hear reports of neighbours who have lost their homes still being charged rent; that not all of the 158 families evacuated from their London homes were offered temporary accommodation within the deadline set by Theresa May; that some of the new housing offered might not even be in London. You hear that millions of pounds have been raised in donations, but neither you nor your neighbours have seen any of it.


Now imagine, three weeks later, the council finally tells you that, after some internal restructuring, they are hiring a special team – or "taskforce" – to provide some key services after the country has criticised their ineptitude. How much faith do you have in them?

This is a tiny insight into the first month that the former residents of Grenfell Tower have experienced after their homes were lost in the fire on the 14th of June. The "specialist taskforce" announced by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid is being brought in to help Kensington and Chelsea council manage "housing, regeneration, community engagement and governance services" – but what exactly will that entail in the wake of a disaster that has, so far, been sensitively managed by local community leaders, activists, Imams and organisers?

Three weeks ago I attended a meeting at the Al Manaar Cultural Heritage Centre in Westbourne Park. It was one of the hottest days of the year, during Ramadan, and over 100 people – predominantly Muslim – were standing in an airless room, making space for survivors. The mosque had been transformed into a makeshift community centre to discuss immediate need. Inside, there were shell-shocked looks, wails and guttural, high-pitched cries from women retelling their unmanaged trauma to the room, men demanding justice and mothers holding their hands over their children's ears as people recounted the horror that had taken place four days previously.


Social housing lawyers and members of Muslim Aid organisations, such as Jehangir Malik, were calling for hard solutions: a call-out for social housing lawyers and trauma counsellors, and a strategy to begin the search for missing people and long-term housing. Outside, the media was braying, edging closer and closer to the building with cameras. Towards the end of the meeting, the room silenced as a woman repeatedly shouted "What do we do?" into the air and at her neighbours.

Kensington and Chelsea are trying, now, to answer that question, but how receptive will victims of what effectively amounts to state violence be to the state offering help too little, too late?

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With that lack of help, people I have spoken to over the last three weeks have all been all mobilising in small ways.

The Radical Housing Network, a London-alliance of 30 housing groups, are mounting a campaign – "Action for Safe Homes" – to demand public authorities take urgent action to address home safety. Local funeral home directors like "Bilal" are providing free Islamic funerals; local volunteers like Tasnia Aurongozeb spent five days organising people and aid in a makeshift ex-club space on Acklam Road in Notting Hill. The Grenfell Action Group continues to expose consistent failings; local post offices are delivering mail to the Westway Sports Centre car park for collection; Oyster top-up stations are used to ensure students get to school; Lancaster West Residents Association are demanding to be made part of the public inquiry. Two weeks ago, the Westway Trust tweeted that funding was available to help groups access "£1m of funding to cover urgent costs such as equipment, spaces, supplies or staff needed to support communities affected by the fire".


That the community has been forced to handle the situation because the authorities would not speaks to the history of Grenfell Tower. Grenfell is the story of unchecked state violence against low-income, predominantly black and brown people, who tried to use the Grenfell Action Group (GAP) to make themselves heard back in 2016 – and failed. The GAP website shows a blog detailing power surges in 2013 which went ignored, as well as multiple other warnings lodged with the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Organisation (KCTMO). Grenfell was an avoidable disaster, and is a damning indictment of a country that has laid its vulnerable communities out to die.

This story resonates in a country that, over the last 40 years, has expertly sold off the majority of its social housing. It chimes with low-income families across the UK at the mercy of "rogue" landlords, with the demonisation of migrants and communities of colour. These abuses of power stretch from landlords like buy-to-let mogul Fergus Wilson refusing to house "coloured people because of curry smells" back in March, to KCTMO wilfully denying the residents of Grenfell fire alarms and adequate cladding tests. It resonates with public sector workers witnessing the entitlement of a government who last week voted in favour of pay caps for public sector workers. It resonates with young people newly engaged with politics who can see its failings in motion.


During election campaigning a month ago, statistics that reinforced economic disparities were held up. BME households are among those hardest hit by austerity. Youth unemployment affects 30 percent of young black people and 26 percent of Bangladeshi/Pakistani people, compared to 13 percent of white people. The ethnic pay gap disproportionately affects Pakistani and Bangladeshi women, at 26 percent. None of this is new. The stats shift, but anecdotally, communities who feel left behind know they are left behind. If you've ever lived in social housing, for instance, you'll know that being ignored by those who are supposed to make you feel at home is par for the course.

Experiencing social housing first-hand is, largely, experiencing being told to know your place. It's not being trusted by authorities, identified as scroungers, told you should be grateful for the state's kindness. Maybe your mum doesn't speak English well enough to get the details, maybe you've just been ignored too many times to think anything you do will make a difference. Maybe cashing in on the fear of instability and potential eviction silenced you. Maybe the fact that it took a massacre for the world to catch up to injustice makes it feel even more depressing. And maybe, even now, seeing the news cycles move on confirms it all. Maybe you internalise the message and submit to losing the fight.

Home for everyone – but especially people of colour – is a political issue. It certainly is for people who feel rootless, like 23-year-old Mohammad Alhajali, who left Syria escaping the war and died in the fire; for communities who might have never felt like they had a stake in society, whether it was because of a van telling them to go home, hearing sisters in the mosque talking about hijabs being snatched, or targeted acid attacks.


Home is what you create for yourself. It's gold tissue boxes on plastic-coated coffee tables in Indian houses; it's glassware cabinets in Iranian homes; it's doormats and picture frames and school drawings stuck to fridge magnets that create the illusion of being settled, despite living at the whim of your local housing association. This is something that members of these council task forces will need to understand if they are to create any real solutions with Grenfell residents.

What happens next, however, is most likely going to be a long haul. An inquest, late nights, paperwork and thankless tasks. The people involved – directly, indirectly, and now in insecure housing across the country – are victims of state violence, and any intervention by the state must be sensitive to ideas of home to have any success. As someone who grew up on an estate, every time my mum bought a vase or tissue box it was about pride, about making the best of the little you're given, about regaining dignity when you're talked to like a piece of shit by local housing authority reps – and if you're going to attempt to heal communities who have lived this, you have to understand that on some level.

The forced community of estates like Grenfell – of familiar faces passing on stairs, giving mithai to your next-door neighbour during Eid, or helping someone upstairs with shopping when a lift breaks – is how you demand space and home in unfamiliar places. In a society that renders many invisible, it's these familiar moments that ensure a duty of care. Thanks to tragedy, it is also these people who are enlisted for the emotional labour to now search for missing neighbours, in the absence of a state that protects them.



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