Grenfell - my real letter to the victims

This morning I read out a letter live on the BBC to the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire, a tragedy that has enraged ordinary people throughout the UK and highlighted some very unpalatable truths about our society. As often happens with media, the reality of my thoughts on this was not in that letter because the producers wrote it - I only got to edit it to sound less transactional. I get why; they don't know me and I could've come up with something completely ridiculous and landed them in trouble had they given me free reign. I was glad to be able to say something at least but it did remind of my own experience in 2011, when trying so hard to distract myself from the nightmare of losing my own home to fire in the London Riots by doing every interview I was asked for. Each time I thought maybe this time I would get to tell people that we weren't being looked after the way everyone assumed we would be and each time I was left feeling empty and disempowered. I was just a story, a soundbite, and then when I wasn't anymore, everyone left and life continued.

So, I want to write the real letter.

Dear Grenfell friends,

Your tragedy has touched people in a way nobody knows how to address. As we watched the horror that unfolded that night, we were all faced with those thoughts that nobody wants to acknowledge; children dying in the most unimaginably horrific way, parents with utter terror on their faces making impossible choices - our total inertia as powerless spectators. No platitudes can bring back your loved ones but you will hear many over the coming weeks as those responsible for your safety ignore their inner humanity and try to justify their part in this story. To them, it is a story, a 'problem' - but it is your life and your future, coping with trauma nobody should face. Some people have the power and others don't and never has this been more bleakly illustrated.

For me in particular, this feels horribly familiar. In 2011 I escaped as my home was set alight in a riot. In the days, weeks, months and years that followed I discovered a lot about humanity and these were lessons hard learned. Blame was shifted and focus fell on the wrong places. Politicians delivered dramatic speeches about British spirit and deflected questions. I believed the hype and applied for the promised help, thinking it'd come. It was sickening. Anger pushed me through the fight for insurance and spurred me on each time a letter from the Home Office abruptly informed me that there was no compensation. My MP dismissed me when I asked why she'd not come to visit any of us, saying only "Oh, you're that woman from Twitter". I've carried this injustice with me ever since and I cannot watch this repeating, I cannot accept that this is how we treat victims in our country.

There is no plan that kicks in after a major incident like this to house people or get them basic provisions, despite what you might be told. There's nothing in place to allow you time off work or help you avoid debt when you can't face going back to a job where people will be walking on eggshells, afraid to say the wrong thing. Your mental health is overlooked. Inquiries focus on everything except the outcomes for those directly affected, who are too vulnerable and beaten down to push back. There will be fundraisers for some but not for others, depending on how many friends you have and how many times you're shown in the media. I scolded myself for being bitter that the owners of shops who had homes to go to were the focus of aid efforts whilst we got nothing. I didn't give a shit about brooms or bloody unbreakable London spirit. I just wanted my life back.

Victims are forgotten except when the anniversary rolls around - then the circus begins again. You talk to the press thinking it gives you a voice but come away feeling used. I desperately don't want this to be your experience. How are you meant to grieve for your loved ones without basic privacy, sleeping on the floor of a community centre? Home is where we go to recover, to process our pain out of sight of the eyes of strangers but without a home, you're in limbo.

I want you to know you are not alone and you will never be alone in dealing with this. Even after the cameras leave and the world moves on, others who've been where you are now will continue to listen, to understand and support you as best we can. Strangers you will never meet will continue to remember this and remember you. As a mother, I'm overwhelmed with empathy, yet I know this is but a fraction of what you must be experiencing. I would never claim to know what you're going through but I offer you the solidarity and understanding of a fellow victim of something most people will thankfully never have to endure.

Nothing you may be feeling now is wrong - you owe us nothing. Don't be strong if you can't be, you don't have to force a smile for a photo or suppress your language so as not to offend someone sitting at home watching you as if you weren't real. You did not deserve this but you do deserve to be treated with kindness and humanity as you put your lives back together. We should all demand this for you.  I want change and despite all of this, I still believe in that possibility. For the lost souls and the survivors, because you matter.


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