At the Al-Manaar mosque in West London, a young mother is wiping away tears. “The return of Ramadan reminds us of last year, and the people who were still alive then,” she says, as she breaks her fast with the traditional fresh date and sip of water.
We are visiting the mosque that sounded the alarm, and later became a Grenfell rescue centre, with Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader was there to share Iftar, the breaking of the fast, with survivors, bereaved family members and volunteers.
A year ago, worshippers returning from Ramadan prayers just before 1am were among the first to see smoke rising from the tower block. Some rushed into the building, others began ringing residents and raising the alarm.
By daybreak, hundreds of survivors and volunteers were crammed into the mosque. It was an extraordinary sight, its simple kindness in stark contrast with the horror of the tower still burning in the sky.
“A year ago, this was a site of panic,” says Bellal el Guenuni, a regular at the mosque, whose wife, three children and unborn baby miraculously survived the fire.
“Families didn’t know where to go. People had no clothes on their back, they were homeless, they were scared. The people who helped them were Muslim young people from this mosque, defying the stereotypes.”
The mosque became a refuge, then a store for mass donations and a community hub. It held a delayed Eid celebration for the surviving children of Grenfell, bouncy castles and candyfloss afloat in a sea of grief. It held funeral prayers for Grenfell’s victims over coffins shrouded in green cloth.
It was where Princes William and Harry comforted survivors and the bereaved. Where Meghan Markle made secret visits. Women stranded in hotels with their families met to cook meals here.
The Labour leader had come to pay his respects a year on to the volunteers who never stinted, and the bereaved and survivors who found their comfort here.
“We are gathered in the shadow of Grenfell where we remember that the difference between us is not about religion – but between those who have everything and those who have very little at all,” Corbyn told an audience invited by Labour’s Community Organising Unit and the Labour Muslim Network, before helping serve the Iftar meal in the room next door.
“This Kensington borough is a microcosm of our society… But when I first came here, and the tower was still alight, you were already providing care and sustenance, and you are still supporting people now with counselling. There is no individual hero of Grenfell. The community as a whole is the hero.”
After the Iftar meal, Jeremy Corbyn met Bellal and also Adel Chaoui, who lost his cousin Farah Hamdan, her husband Omar Belkadi and their baby Leena in the fire. Their daughter Malak died later in hospital, leaving only one young child, Tamzin, alive.
Adel’s petition, backed by Stormzy, forced a Commons debate that led to extra inquiry panel members being appointed.
“My family died and we are never going to get them back,” Adel told the Labour leader. “But what I want to make sure is that Tamzin isn’t campaigning in 30 years’ time like the children of Hillsborough. I will not accept that for her.”
Bellal asked Corbyn why he thought the Government was still failing to make the UK’s tower blocks safe. “We will all be housed one day,” he said, “but the bigger thing is, are other families safe?”
The Labour leader compared the families’ fight to the campaign against asbestos. “We fought to get it removed for years even when the Government knew it was dangerous,” he said.
“What you’re doing is changing it for the next generation. You should be very proud.” Labour, he said, would take back housing from “arms-length” contractors.
Bellal praised the local Muslim youth. “They fought through barriers to go and save people,” he said. “They stayed for weeks after. It is still the youth who even to this day are looking after the memorial sites and clearing up after our monthly silent walks.
“On June 14, they proved the stereotypes wrong – extremism, drug-dealing and stabbings. They said, you know what, we’re not those people.”
The Grenfell community is still reliving its pain every day through the public inquiry. But every month since the fire, it has held itself together by walking in solidarity through streets around the tower in silence, remembering the 72 who once trod the same pavements and who died in the sky.
Next Thursday, the community will gather once more, for the 11th time. Jeremy Corbyn pledged to join them, and they hope many others will too.
Above, the white-shrouded carcass of the burned-out tower reminds us that the fire at Grenfell wasn’t just a tragedy, it was a preventable tragedy, an obscenity. “But if Grenfell has taught us anything,” Bellal says, “it’s that when we join as a community we achieve unimaginable things.”
Watch – On the Ground at Grenfell today 12.00 on @grenfellspeaks made by young people, survivors, residents and volunteers www.facebook.com/Grenfellspeaks
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