For Years, Grenfell Was Hiding In Plain Sight, But Now The World Is Watching And We Are Listening

As a reporter, I had never before witnessed anything like the Grenfell fire
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On June 13, 2017, families in Grenfell Tower went to bed just like every other night. But within hours a fire would rip through the 24-storey high-rise and change the lives of residents and the wider community forever.

As the world woke up the following morning to scenes of flames engulfing a residential tower in one of London’s wealthiest boroughs, a nation woke up to the inequalities that had been hiding in plain sight for years.

Walk 10 minutes from the Lancaster West Estate, and the streets are lined with BMWs, Audis and Jaguars, parked outside the multi-million pound properties, many of which are undergoing renovation works.

But just metres away in Grenfell Tower, scores of people were left to perish in a building described as being riddled with fire and safety problems.

The blaze exposed vast inequalities in the north Kensington borough.

The morning of the fire, everyone was asking the same question: how could this possibly happen in London? There was disbelief that the smouldering building dominating the west London skyline was in the UK. We are fortunate as a nation to believe that, when we go to bed at night, we will be safe in our own homes. Grenfell Tower fire exposed the chink in society’s armor and it became clear that no-one really knew what to do next.

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No-one, that is, except the community.

Among the chaos, there was a sense of direction and purpose. Within minutes of speaking to local people and witnesses on the morning of June 14, I met volunteers who were coordinating donations and the relief effort at a nearby church.

Locals said they had to help themselves because there was no-one else who would.

Residents had become used to not being listened to and were taking matters into their own hands.

As a reporter, I had never before witnessed anything like the Grenfell fire. Foreign correspondents working in conflict zones might have a better idea of the kind of environment people were faced with.

And as the media tried to catch up with events on the ground and find out how a tragedy such as this had happened, volunteers were collecting donations and giving those affected a safe place to go.

As journalists, our job is to report on what happens and hold the powerful to account. Our job is to find out how real people are affected by government policy – at a national and local level. Grenfell showed us how we had failed.

I began my career as a local newspaper reporter and those were some of the most rewarding and satisfying years of my career. But since I left my local beat several years ago, many staff have been let go and resources have been slashed.

The dwindling numbers of local journalists creates an accountability vacuum. Sure, Kensington residents identified a number of areas of concern with the safety of Grenfell Tower, but when the local authorities failed to listen or act, there wasn’t a strong local paper for residents to turn to.

When the media were finally on residents’ doorsteps, there was a sense of being too late, with locals asking us where we were before the fire.

For too long the residents of Grenfell Tower and the surrounding estate have not been listened to. They took matters into their hands after the blaze because they had to, and ever since they have been supporting one another and providing services within the community.

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Every month on the anniversary of the fire, a silent walk around Latimer Road takes place. On December 14, hundreds of people holding candles and the iconic green Grenfell heart marched silently in the bitter cold for the six-month anniversary.

Grenfell has become synonymous with such strength of character and unity. It is something to be admired and to champion, but it is sad that it was ever needed.

With the public inquiry and police investigation into the blaze both underway, survivors and those who lost loved ones still need answers.

The community deserves to know why and how the tragedy happened and the scores of survivors still awaiting permanent accommodation need to get new homes in order to allow them a chance to start rebuilding their lives.

I hope 2018 will bring with it some of the much-needed answers to survivors’ questions.

It took a tragedy for the nation to pay attention to Grenfell, but we are finally listening and the world is watching.

This blog is part of HuffPost UK’s 12 days of Christmas series. From 20 December we will bring you blogs and vlogs from individuals at the centre of some of 2017′s biggest news stories. They will reflect on the past 12 months and also look forward to new year. To find out more follow our hashtag #HuffPost12Days or visit our series page.


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