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Young people are the unsung heroes of Grenfell

Meet some of the extraordinary young people bringing life to the Grenfell community.

Pele visits Stowe Youth Centre.Stowe Youth Centre was a special place. Pele visited in the 1980s. Ten years earlier, the Police Station next door on the Harrow Road had been firebombed by residents. The Harrow Road has long been an area with challenging poverty and tension because of the intersection of major estates. The youth centre provided desperately needed space, and community for young people, 70 percent of whom had no access to computers. Even politicians came to launch their white papers on education as it was so near Parliament and was considered a centre of excellence. Memorably, Garry Kasparov came to play chess with our chess club in 2007. For ten years I ran ‘The Cut Magazine’ with my friend Nina Manandhar. Thirty young people would come in every Wednesday to interview and photograph those they wanted in their magazine. Interviews ranged from the Wu-Tang Clan to one of the first debates with the police on ‘Joint Enterprise’. With 1000 other youth centres in the country, we lost all our funding in the government cuts, and my inspirational boss, Michael Dipple, lost his job after thirty-three years.

Gary Kasparov visits Stowe youth centre.

Using our last savings, we were making a film about the closure of the youth centre when the Grenfell Tower fire occurred. It threw the world of the young people making the film upside down, as they lost friends. Grenfell was 10 minutes from our youth centre. Many tower residents had grown up with Michael as their youth worker. The young people were low from the closure of the youth centre and Grenfell was rock bottom.

As they volunteered in the hours after the fire, they switched on the news to find the young people who were being interviewed on TV were angry, some even wearing masks and making gang signs. It’s hard, news teams argue, because they have little time to turn round a report. Because the most broken, most shell-shocked young people don’t want to be interviewed, it ends up being the loudest voices – those that are the most agitated – that end up being on TV.

There is nothing wrong with the anger these young people felt. Our concern was that for people who didn’t know anyone who lived in social housing, this would make them frightened of young people. The truth on the ground was far from the soundbites of righteous anger that media outlets craved. Actually many young people were busy being heroic that night, as Bellal El Guenini, a survivor says in our film, ‘not just after the fire but during the fire’.

We were already a crew, assembled for the youth centre film, so we turned the camera on the tragedy. The young people wanted to tell their own story. They arranged the interviews, Shona interviewing her friend Zoe,  a survivor with whom she had been to primary school. Samiah, who lost her schoolfriend Khadija Saye, interviewed her friend Reem, who had helped rescue families on the night. There were nine young people – survivors, local residents and volunteers – who made the film. The film is edited to capture the atmosphere and rawness of the scene. There are visible fades, pauses when people are speaking. The idea was to draw people into the nuance of the devastation, the peculiarity of trying to cope.

Bellal, one of the survivors in our film says, ‘The community were at the forefront of this disaster and we haven’t heard nothing said about these youth that were there […] the people that were mainly there on the night from the community were these same youth... I had 5, 10, 15 people trying to save my family on the night’.

Mo, who lost family, and slept on the streets whilst volunteering.

Many young men were returning from the Mosque at the time of the fire and ran to help. On the ground at Grenfell, three young men talk about their attempt to rescue their family from the building, ‘we was hopeless at the time, we thought we might as well die. We’ll die trying to save the family, or we can just sit here like idiots and do nothing’.

They then talk about their friend, Yasin El- Wahabi, who was 21. ‘My friend, his mum and dad were there, I think they were on the 20th…23, 24 [floor] something, he ended up going inside. He ran upstairs and then… he didn’t come back down. He say my mum was in there, and he ran in – I don’t know how he got in but yeah, he ran in and he didn’t even come back down’. It would have been a miracle that Yasin made it up to the 23rd floor with no breathing apparatus. We know from testimony that Yasin tried to ring the Police once he had reached his family. All five of them passed away in the fire. His friends are haunted by the memory of him breaking through the barriers and running inside the building.

There were also the Bangladeshi brothers who wouldn’t leave their elderly parents to pass away alone, knowing they were too disabled to make it down the stairs. They chose to stay with them rather than leave.

After the fire, the Westway Centre would not let people in without identification. The bureaucracy around ‘entry wristbands’ prevented many who urgently needed help from getting it. Mo, who had just lost five relatives in the fire slept on the street for six days while volunteering. I say slept, but most of the young people were barely getting an hour a night in the immediate aftermath of the fire. Reece, who lives opposite the tower, lost many friends in the fire. He says, ‘I didn’t know how to take the deaths except to help. So I got ill as well, you can hear a bit of the smoke on my chest as well. I didn’t sleep from that day onwards’.

The film first screened in early August at The Frontline Club, and the audience sat in shocked silence at the end. Jeremy Deller, the artist, asked Channel 4 News to cover the film which they did, and the journalist and campaigner Ros Wynne-Jones helped us to take the film to parliament. If MPs could hear the young people, they would know the pain of the community. Shahin Sadafi, the Chair of Grenfell United said 'On the ground’ was filmed at a time when things were still so raw, and helped to capture the pain we all went through.’

In the weeks that followed the tragedy, I saw individuals and pop-up organisations, even a room full of psychiatrists scramble to take advantage of the situation to further their own careers. The scene was one of complete opportunism and exploitation from people looking for money or kudos in ‘leading the response’. It was chaotic and local groups competed with each other – support for survivors was all over the place because there was no infrastructure from the council, everything relied on volunteers.

Grenfell United first meeting in parliament, December 2017

For the six month anniversary of the fire, Grenfell United had their first public meeting in parliament. Behind the scenes young people manned the phones, helping to call over 700 MPs and Lords to invite them to the event. Five of the bereaved and survivors spoke to the meeting, straight from their hearts, scrupulously avoiding taking political sides. It was a rare moment in parliament where MPs from both sides were in tears, many of them sitting in silence. The young people were there too as volunteers. They spoke to MPs, gave them hugs, no matter what party they were from. After Grenfell United spoke, ‘On the ground at Grenfell’ was screened, introduced by Sajid Javid, the then Minister with overall charge of Grenfell, and John Healey, the Shadow Minister for Housing. They both commented on how important it was that the event was about the survivors and remarkably managed not to veer into party politics.

After the event Nick Hurd, the Minister for Grenfell gave an interview saying, ‘There won’t be an MP who has gone out of that meeting, seen that film, who doesn’t think how do I make sure the state does the right thing, how can I hold the government to account? What can I do? I think that was the power and success of tonight’s meeting.’ The Grenfell Speaks interviewer then asked him, ‘What was the most powerful aspect of the testimonies you heard tonight?’ And he answered, ‘Dignity, the way they went out of their way not to bring politics into it. The honesty of the message, the authenticity of the message, the dignity of the message left a very powerful impression.’

Swarzy Macaly

Swarzy's notes on Marti Luther King

One of the young people in our film, Swarzy Macaly, has volunteered since the fire. Not just in volunteering and organising (‘they were asking us on TV why we weren’t at the town hall rioting, and I was like ‘what riot?’ We had just packed a 1000 boxes in a day, I didn’t even know people were at the town hall!).  She told me she had just finished reading Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography the week before the fire. ‘It [his autobiography] was like a manual, on how to deal with community. How to love and serve and not to reject anger but love people through it.’

One year on, it is young people that clean up after the Silent March every month. Young people opening their hearts and saying this tragedy is so big, it doesn’t matter where you’re from, how rich you are. We’re all human beings and ‘be my friend’ so we can work together to make sure this never happens again.

Grenfell United in parliament

In May this year, these same young people volunteered to support Grenfell United in parliament again. One hundred MPs met thirty members of Grenfell United, to speak to them individually to hear their stories and to learn directly why it was so important to add members to the Panel of the Inquiry. Twenty-four hours later,Theresa May made a u-turn and granted the extra panel members. It was meeting the survivors in person and the warmth of the young people that so moved the MPs.

Our film ends with the words of children from in and around the tower. Constantine Gras, the artist in residence in the tower, was working with local children from Lancaster West Estate on a huge drawing on Grenfell Tower Fun Day in 2015. The resulting drawing and poem has a line about ‘an elephant, a rhinoceros and a giraffe’ visiting Grenfell Tower ‘for the day’. The tower was a loving community, full of children and young people. They could be your children, your community. They loved animals and football, and they loved Grenfell Tower, the magical place where they lived and dreamed of Lionel Messi and riding horses.

These are the words of the children and young people in Constantine Gras' poem:

Picture in words

Live, laugh, love

Grenfell Tower.

Flags.

I love you England and Morocco.

Clip, clop.

Horses hooves

Poo and pee.

Three, four, five, six, seven.

Ground floor, 2nd floor.

The movements of a lift.

An elephant, rhinoceros and giraffe

Came to Grenfell tower

For the day.

Flowers.

Free Syria.

Lionel Messi is the best.

Live, laugh, love

Grenfell Tower.

On the ground at Grenfell won ‘Best Film’ in Portobello Film Festival 2017 and was put in the National Archive.

You can view the film which contains extremely traumatic footage and prolonged and graphic imagery of fire at:

You can watch the full film "On the Ground at Grenfell" below. You can read all of openDemocracy's coverage of Grenfell here.

About the author
Nendie Pinto-Duschinsky is a film-maker and youth worker based in London.
She is director of 'On the ground at Grenfell'. www.nendiepintoduschinsky.com


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