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Grenfell Tower

The Life of a Former Grenfell Resident Still Housed in a Hotel

Nearly a year after the fire that killed at least 71 people, I spent the day with Amanda Fernandez, one of the hundreds displaced by the atrocity.

by Kieran Yates
11 June 2018, 3:20pm

Protesters demonstrating days after the fire, in June of 2017. Photo: Janine Wiedel Photolibrary / Alamy Stock Photo

"The last thing I cooked was the day before the fire. You know, nesting and looking after your family is a form of survival, especially as a woman. If something's going wrong, you'd be like, 'Come over and let's eat together, let's sort through the problem.'"

Amanda Fernandez is talking me through the importance of food, and its power to create a sense of home. "I think the last thing I made was lentils, but it's not about the food, is it? It's about what you lose when you live somewhere where you can't use a kitchen."

We're sitting in the breakfast area of a Holiday Inn Express in west London. Soundtracking our conversation is the dull hum of a cleaner's vacuum, hoovering up cornflakes dropped to the floor by tourists, ahead of their days out in the Bank Holiday sun. Fernandez, a 31-year-old of Spanish and Colombian descent, is bright and beautiful, dressed in black skinny jeans and a black top, with her hair perfectly slicked back.

It's here, in the clinical surroundings of the Holiday Inn, that Fernandez has lived for the 11 months since a fire set Grenfell Tower ablaze, on the night of the 14th of June, 2017, killing at least 71 people, displacing many more, and leaving Fernandez homeless.

She gestures to the front desk, where a receptionist is manning the phones, and tries to piece together the events that led to her arrival here. "I remember going to that desk on the 19th of June," she says. "It was 2 o'clock in the morning, and up until that day we were just on the streets. When I look back, I'm like, 'What was I doing for those five days?' That was 11 months ago now – can you believe it?"

Fernandez is a former resident of the Lancaster West Estate; she lived on the top floor of the blocks directly under Grenfell. Falling debris from the fire destroyed her home, and the jets of the fire hoses waterlogged what was left. She takes me through how it felt to live in an area that the rest of the world had suddenly taken notice of, with both reporters and donations pouring in (as of the 6th of June, 2018, £28.4 million had been raised for the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire; in March, it was revealed £20 million had been spent keeping survivors in hotels, enough to build a Grenfell Tower replicate an estimated three times over).

"It was… like a massive carnival, without the joy," she says. "The people I'd grown up with were like family to you. All of a sudden, they were there – the ones who had moved away had come back. It was like, 'I'm happy to see you,' but the circumstances… You didn't even know when day turned into night. I don't remember sleeping. I remember asking every shopkeeper to charge our phones. I was constantly on 15 percent! Everyone wanted to give me food and water, and I had no appetite. Everything was just so… floaty. Nothing felt real. The heat was overwhelming, I constantly felt dazed… and it felt like there were loads of people around, millions."

The journey from the Lancaster West Estate to the Holiday Inn is blurry, but Fernandez remembers arriving here to share a room with her 73-year-old mum, where she tried to pause and process the events of the previous couple of days. "The first thing I wanted to do was just go in and open the windows and feel free, but the windows in the rooms don't open, so it all just felt claustrophobic," she says.

The asphyxiating nature of sharing a small hotel room wasn't just down to the space itself. As Fernandez describes the logistics of living in a hotel for nearly a year, it's the day-to-day details that hit you hardest. She talks about the psychological impact of not having a physical, metal key – as opposed to a key card – for 11 months; her mornings being disrupted by room service knocking on the door; the questions from Uber drivers taking her back to the hotel in the evenings ("I swear they think I'm a prostitute!"); the tireless attempts to make her room a home; the hours spent in the launderette (the hotel has no laundry services); hearing the question of, "Where has all the donation money gone?" over and over again; and the bane of her life: an ugly piece of commissioned hotel art in her room, which is immovably screwed to the wall.

"It was weird," she laughs, "I haven't slept with my mother since I was a child. She would be Facebooking family until the early hours, and I was like, 'Mum! I have work in the morning.' But then she was having nightmares and waking me up in the night."

Photo: Emily Bowler

Speaking to Fernandez, her charm and lightness could almost make you forget the trauma she has experienced. It's a trauma borne not just of what she's seen, but of how the state has failed to adequately deal with her displacement – a displacement many see as falling squarely in the hands of a negligent local government which failed to implement adequate safety measures in the Grenfell Tower.

Fernandez says she initially didn't want to talk to the press about her experiences, for the fear of having her identity reduced to "Grenfell survivor" – but her anger has now galvanised her, with each administrative calamity spurring her on. The key workers who go on holiday, leaving her to re-tell her story again and again to new people; the pamphlets printed in Farsi rather than Arabic; the paperwork her mother couldn't understand; the frustration on behalf of older aunties.

"That generation of immigrants just keep their head down, and you give them biscuits and tea and they're happy in their little female group, because they prioritise themselves last," laughs Fernandez. "I was at the Westway [a support centre], like, 'A biscuit? Are you silly? We've got nowhere to live!"

Fernandez runs an arts organisation in the area called FerArts, which champions emerging local artists, and she emphasises the importance of community. "I've been offered [housing in] Harrow," she says, "which, look, is totally fine for people who want to leave the borough – everyone wants different things. But I was born and raised on that estate. I work locally. Our estate wasn't just a tower; it was the nursery, the boxing club, and, before you hit the ground, you've got a ramp that goes into the walkways, which is all art of the same estate. I'm supposed to rebuild my life with no one around me, in the middle of a community where I don't know anyone?"

Photo: Emily Bowler

We walk up to Fernandez's room, a small, perfectly-organised space with a mini fridge, some immaculately-arranged beauty products, crystals and essential oils, and a few noticeable attempts to make the area her own – a bright red cushion in the shape of some lips being one.

"Sometimes I get so upset," she says. "The longer you keep these people in a hotel, the bigger the trauma, or the quicker they're just gonna give up and take whatever is given to them." There's a long pause while we both take in what she's just said.

I ask what the trauma feels like. "It's tense and it's suffocating," she answers. "It's like, a powdered atmosphere. The trauma in our area is massive at the moment. It's very opaque, it's thick, it feels like there's a bubble over this whole area. For me, between here and Ladbroke Grove and Queen's Park, is bad energy. I associate it with trauma. Work is an escape, going to therapy is going to get rid of trauma. Then, when I'm in the studio, that's where it gets lighter. I have a rule that we don't talk about Grenfell when we're in there; we talk about the response to it."

Of course, it's hard to shake the memory when triggers – fireworks, cloying heat – prod her unexpectedly.

Like almost every survivor of the Grenfell atrocity, Fernandez has been let down by the state. At the time of writing, she has been forced to accept accommodation in Harrow – and the appeal process to find housing closer to home could take months.

"There are certain regulations that you can bypass, but when you get into fire hazards – things that have consequences on people's lives – that's when I think to myself, 'What is the role of a council?' These people are there to safeguard you as tenants, and as you've got so many towers in London, it's just worrying," she says. "Who do you put your trust in? Is the council a support? I don't have any faith in any councillors."

But there are warm stories: the bond she has with the doctor also still waiting at the Holiday Inn; the families who have left for new houses; the Filipino family she grew up with, who she thought had died, reappearing at the hotel; the "young guys in thobes coming to help during Ramadan"; the building of a new community and the humour she has found moments for throughout the whole ordeal: "I remember, it was Ramadan [at the time of the fire], and the first responders were just guys from the local masjid giving out dates," she says. "I was with my little cousins, and I was like, 'Stop eating so much dried fruit, we don't have a toilet!'"

For now, the legacy of Grenfell – and the distrust it has caused – seems like it will, rightfully, cast a shadow over all future proceedings and interactions between tenants and council members. It's beyond frustrating as an outsider looking in, so one can only imagine how it feels for Fernandez and others like her, who are asking all the same questions about their respective futures, and receiving no clear answers.

Back in the lobby, as we're saying our goodbyes, Fernandez sees one of her friends, who tells her to go to the park, to get some sun, to take a breather. And off she goes – not really closer to anything resembling justice, and with no clear next step in sight. But in the face of government inaction, it's heartening to know that Fernandez, her friends and her family are doing what they can to rebuild, to create a future in which she can go to the park, get some sun, take a breather.

To support the FerArt's "Youth After Grenfell" project, please donate here, or at www.FerArts.org. At Amanda's request, we are sharing this poem from Shareefa Energy.

@kieran_yates