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London Riots 2011: Victims Face A Difficult Christmas And An Uncertain Future

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Alf Biber:
Alf Biber: "People don't want to come to the area"

Alf Biber ran his barber shop in Tottenham for almost 40 years. His wife died in 2010 but he kept coming to work every day, often arriving before sunrise to unlock the doors and wait for his regulars to show up.

Then, one day, his life's work was smashed to pieces.

The rioters who rampaged through the area in early August shattered his windows, ripped his door off its hinges and looted his shop of everything from the chairs to the coffee cups. "The chairs were stolen. The hairdryer, the kettle, all stolen, the cups, the coffee, the sugar - everything," the 89-year-old remembers.

Now, as nearby Tottenham High Road struggles to muster the Christmas spirit, and empty shops sit quietly next to the shell of the abandoned, burnt-out Aldi supermarket, Alf is pretty much on his own once again.

For London's businesses and families who lost everything during the riots, Christmas spirit is just one more thing the rioters took away.

Alf Biber grew up half-starved in the East End just off Cable Street and defended Tower Bridge in World War Two. He always worked for himself, whether it was making bibles or delivering groceries from Spitalfields to Covent Garden. He built his own shop and ran it for 40 years. When the rioters tore it apart, the injustice was palpable. Journalists from publications including The Telegraph and The Economist flocked to hear his story.

"They all focused on me because I worked hard all my life," Alf said. "I've worked since I was 10 years old."

Alf also became the focus of a fundraising campaign that collected £35,000 to rebuild his shop. It was a sweet gesture, but Alf Biber doesn't like handouts, big or small. He says he turned down the cash left over after Diamond Build finished work on the shop.

"I also had an Indian woman with crutches who could hardly walk," he said. "She said I've come to see you and she had something in her hand. She wanted to give me £10 and I wouldn't take it. That really upset me, that did. I was nearly in tears."

And now? "Now it's gone dead, the place." Business is slow. Except for traffic the area is silent. And after Alf wakes up at 4am, drives down to his shop and turns on the radio it's a long time before a customer arrives.

Sometimes they never do.

"People don't want to come to the area," he says. "I've had regular customers leave. There used to be a tax office over there who used to do my books, he thought I was closed for good. It's not going to get better. All the shops here are complaining, even at Christmas. ... People are afraid of coming to the area. I've been in business all my life and I know what's going to happen.

"When you see all the shops around the area doing nothing at Christmas, you know that's not right."

It's been a hard Christmas for many other businesses in Tottenham, too. Despite Haringey Council's attempt to turn the PR tide with its "Love Tottenham" campaign, nothing seems to be working. The burnt-out Aldi supermarket still blights the High Road. The perpetually half-built flats that litter the area stand as empty as they did last summer - and last winter. Even the compensation promised to the victims of the riots is hampered by bureaucratic delays.

It's a story that's being repeated all over London: so-called "recovered businesses" finding Christmas harder than ever.

Delays over compensation don't help. The Metropolitan Police Authority admits that most of the 3,500 claims from firms and families for compensation are still unpaid. The total was reduced to 2,205 after investigations, but so far only 42 have been dealt with.

The Home Office also admits to "complications".

"We are doing all we can to support families and businesses whose property was damaged in the August riots - whether they have insurance or not," a spokesperson for the Home Office said. "However, many of these claims are complex and we are working with local authorities to conclude them as quickly as possible."

Elizabeth Pilgrim is the owner of BabyE, a gift shop in Ealing that was looted and set alight on 8 August. When she saw the damage done to her shop she "never thought we'd recover", but relatively soon after the store was back in business.

In theory.

"Most of what was damaged was able to be replaced or put back together," she said. One of the guilty parties was charged and convicted, and community spirit helped too. "Following the riots there's been a new sense of community pride," she said. "And a sense that actually it's not such a bad place to live. I've seen more of a 'shop local' attitude amongst people."

But not everything has returned to normal. Business is slow - and the economy doesn't help. Scaffolding is still suffocating her shop, and, most of all, Pilgrim is still angry. Her fury is most obvious when she mentions the people who live - or used to live - above her store.

"The building is going to take years to rebuild," she says through gritted teeth. "The people that lived above are in hotels and in temporary accommodation. The guy who lived directly above me, him and his partner were absolutely terrified that night. They heard them running down the street and then heard them say 'let's burn the shops down'. What are they supposed to do?"

Hundreds of people were made homeless by the riots after attackers set fire to buildings in Tottenham and other parts of the city. The BBC recently revealed how many of those families are still trying to rebuild their lives in temporary or inadequate accommodation.

In Croydon alone, more than 100 people were made homeless by the riots, including 29 families. All have been re-housed, some privately and some in council housing, partly thanks to the help of local charities like Nightwatch and Croydon Commitment.

"For most people it's remarkable that someone should become homeless through fire or crime," said Jad Adams, chair of Nightwatch. "For us this is just life as it comes." He added that while homelessness itself is bad enough, it is the lost artefacts of a past life - the photos, the heirlooms and even the clothes - that leave people adrift even months after they have a new roof over their heads. Some Christmas.

Can the riots happen again? Many still think - and fear - that they will, including those who did it. In the Guardian's Reading the Riots study, completed with the London School of Economics, 81% of the rioters said they believed unrest would happen again.

If the riots do come back then Londoners will likely learn to cope, and recover - as they always have. But people take time to heal, and so do cities. And at Christmas, it is perhaps unsurprising if the wounds throb with a little more pain

So if you're in Tottenham over the holidays, maybe take half an hour to visit Alf's shop at 23 Scotland Green. Ask for a haircut, have a chat and pay only what he asks. It might just make this a slightly merrier Christmas for a man who almost lost everything.

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