A community devastated
Friday 7th July 2017
AMAR AZAM talks to activists at the al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in London’s Ladbroke Grove – which is one of the establishments in the borough that threw open its doors in the aftermath of the Grenfell tragedy
MOHAMMED ALHAJALI was the first of the residents laid to rest, in an east London cemetery, thousands of miles away from his war-torn Syria.
At his funeral last month, we learnt more of the gentle nature of the 23-year-old. He had fled the conflict in his homeland in hope of a better life in Britain.
Instead, it was cut short at a tenderly young age. Like those countless others that lost their lives in the Grenfell Tower tragedy, the details of his final moments are difficult to bear.
Alhajali was to perish in his 14th-floor flat in Grenfell Tower after attempting to reach his family on the telephone. His last message to friends was to tell his parents that he loved them.
Who knows, over time, the civil engineering student may have completed his studies and returned to help rebuild his nation.
Elsewhere in London on that same day, Mohammed Mahmoud, the imam at the Finsbury Park mosque which was the scene of an act of terrorism the previous night, was hailed by his community and honoured by Prince Charles for his actions in protecting the attacker in the immediate aftermath.
This has been a difficult few weeks for Britain’s three million Muslims. The backlash from the tragic incidents in London and Manchester has led to a rise in Islamophobic attacks as an entire community faces demonisation. These attacks continue to escalate. However, despite this Muslims remain stoic.
The al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre in London’s Ladbroke Grove is one of the establishments in the borough that threw open its doors in the aftermath of the Grenfell Tower tragedy. Its rooms still contain surplus donations of food, clothing and toiletries, boxes stacked floor to ceiling.
In one of the offices Samer Darwish, the imam of al-Manaar, ponders the events of recent weeks.
“What that imam showed was the genuine face of Islam,” he says. “His actions were absolutely correct. He understood that he needed to show restraint and he also understood the repercussions had the attacker been hurt.”
He praised the reaction of the local Muslim community.
Darwish adds: “This tragedy has affected so many people and I was so pleased with the way Muslims reacted. The work carried out here has been for the benefit of all in the wider community. We have demonstrated that we can show humanity and compassion.”
After late afternoon prayers, some of the volunteers who are staffing the main hall and have provided all manner of support services for the victims and their families are leaving for the day.
Counsellors have been available for those that need emotional support, as have legal experts and those that have helped fill in forms, provide refreshments or just lent a sympathetic ear.
“We’ve met so many types of people and, personally, it has been a really challenging experience,” said Asif Bhayat, of the National Zakat Foundation, one of the British-based charities that has supported residents through immediate financial assistance.
“The ones that really stick in the memory are the ones that you can see really wanted to talk because they had no-one else to talk to.
“It is those interactions that will stay with me. The tears of those that have lost everything are difficult to bear. Hearing stories of the children affected has been tough.”
Hassan Awad, one of the duty officers at al-Manaar, insisted on leading the congregational prayer for his wife Rania and two girls, Fethia, five, and Hania, three. The outpouring of grief from the congregation was immense. No person should ever have to do what he did.
As dusk approaches at al-Manaar, the smell of cooked food begins wafting in as donations from local people and companies begin to turn up. It’s been like this ever since the day of the tragedy.
Fresh bread and cakes from a local firm in the nearby industrial estate arrive.
“We wanted to make a donation as we’ve seen our neighbours here go through so much,” says Shaz, one of the workers from Sally Clarke bakery.
“This is our way of doing our bit as we know that the food will go to a good cause.”
A team of volunteers begin the immediate task of distributing the food among the families in the area spending another evening in makeshift accommodation. Others remain resting, clearly left a little fatigued by the events of the day and the challenge of doing so while maintaining a fast of 18 hours in what has been the hottest week of the year.
The more we find out about our victims, the more and more it become difficult to detach oneself from the tragedy.
“I have been here since the morning of the fire,” says Tabassum Awan, 31, from nearby Notting Hill.
“I live near the tower, and I called in on the morning thinking they could need some help and was asked to man the phones as the switchboard was becoming inundated.
“What I’ve seen in my time here will stay with me forever. In this tragedy, you’ve seen people from all walks of life come together.”
The borough of Kensington and Chelsea is not only one of the most ethnically diverse in our capital, it is also one where there is a sharp contrast between rich and poor.
Make the short walk beneath the A40 Westway overpass to nearby Notting Hill and you will find the Methodist Church sitting among the white stuccoed townhouses and picturesque tree-lined streets that characterise this trendy part of London. Here you will come across one of many great floral tributes to those lost.
Faces peer out from beyond the flowers, some of them smiling. One of those is of Jessica Urbano, the 12-year-old was one of the younger residents not to escape the inferno. A reminder of how the fire did not discriminate.
A few weeks later, we return al-Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, and the Eid festival laid on for the families affected by the Grenfell Tower tragedy is a few hours old.
A packed main hall at the centre is awash with colour. Excitable young children burst from in between the food stalls clutching presents given to the mosque from generous donors.
Others sit there, proudly showing off their fresh henna patterns and newly painted faces as they enjoy the seemingly endless supply of cupcakes, popcorn and candy floss.
Present too are local residents, mingling freely. This is a day for the community here in this part of London.
The pain and anguish will remain as a scar on the collective consciousness of the community here in this corner of London for a generation and more to come, and long after the tower is razed to the ground and replaced with whatever memorial is deemed fit.
The pervading feeling is one of injustice; of lives lost due to greed, in the name of austerity or negligence. Let’s hope that their pain will ease over time, and the community can continue to come together to mend itself.