‘We Can Never be Normal People... But I am a Strong Woman’The Women of Grenfell
The inquiry into the Grenfell fire ended on 21 July, more than five years after the disaster. But for survivors and next of kin, the grief is still raw and questions remain unanswered. Sian Norris reports
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Above nine-year-old Kyle’s bed, the wall is covered in certificates. Some are decorated with illustrations of trophies and medals. Some simply praise in bold type his academic achievements, his enthusiasm in class, his kindness for his fellow pupils and respect for his teachers. His mum Rhea Rojo beams with pride at her son’s success, gesturing to the advanced reading list of books on his shelf.
How different from five years ago.
Back then, Rhea was sofa-surfing in Grenfell Tower and Kyle was in the care system. She was undocumented, doing cleaning jobs across two flats.
“It is in our nature to do something in return,” she explains. “They gave me a roof over my head so I cleaned, walked the dog, and I am grateful.”
When the fire started on 14 June 2017, Rhea escaped into a lift with four other people. Only she and one other came out alive. She was captured on CCTV when she eventually fled the building, her face black with smoke.
When asked what life was like before the fire, she says “there is no life before Grenfell”.
In the chaotic aftermath of the tragedy, Rhea was told not to ask for support by the people who she had stayed with – the then Home Secretary Amber Rudd would soon declare an amnesty for undocumented people living in the tower. She was made to feel, too, that she was not deserving of help – that her status meant she was not equal to other survivors. Such comments would come to haunt her.
But right then, Rhea had another crisis to focus on. She was due to attend her psychological assessment with social services, as part of her fight to bring Kyle home. The psychologist saw a dishevelled woman in dirty clothes – not a traumatised survivor of the worst disaster on British soil since the Second World War.
Not long after, the courts decided that Kyle should be adopted.
Rhea had no status, no home, and no son. But her life started to turn around when she met a volunteer who listened to her concerns. Their support gave her the glimmer of hope that had been missing from her life for so long.
There was no time to lose. New barristers did not even have time to apply for legal aid before they started working to reunite mother and son. At the same time, the amnesty allowed Rhea to find a house, as well as a job in a care home. Finally, she got the news she was waiting for: Kyle was coming home and, even better, he had a scholarship to attend one of London’s leading private schools.
A home, a job and reunited with her son. But Rhea’s ordeal was still not over. Her undocumented status and her struggles to access support in the aftermath of the fire led to accusations that she was a Grenfell fraud.
“It was very lonely,” she says. “I survived the fire and then was treated this way, I was fighting for my son, I had personal issues and it was all coming at once”.
“I would have been worth more dead than alive,” she adds. “If I had died, they would have all been claiming me, saying I was a lovely Filipino cleaner and holding my picture at St Paul’s”.
A police investigation found no evidence of fraud.
Life is still a struggle. It took Rhea a huge amount of effort to rebuild her confidence and self-esteem after the fire, having been dehumanised and made to feel like a second-class citizen for so long. This was compounded by the guilt she felt for managing to escape after those in the lift with her perished – “I feel guilty for surviving,” she says.
Despite everything she has faced, Rhea’s love for Kyle and her pride in his achievements gives her life. At the end of our interview, he sings us a song by his favourite band Imagine Dragons, his voice ringing clear as a bell over the west London traffic outside.
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‘Our Mother and Aunty Died Holding Hands’
It was the traces of ash left on the floor of a neighbour’s flat that told Massomeh and Raheleh Samimi how their mother Fatemeh Afrasiabi and aunt Sakineh Afrasiabi had died at Grenfell Tower.
The pair had been told to go up the tower, where they sought sanctuary with a neighbour on the 23rd floor. Here, a few recovered body parts were DNA-matched with the family. The pattern of the ash, the investigators explained, meant the two women had been holding hands at the end.
“My mother was a very happy and positive person,” says Massomeh. “She had an incredible energy and wherever she went she would uplift people. She was appreciative of everything beautiful.”
When the fire broke out, Massomeh and Raheleh were at home in Iran watching the news. They assumed everything would be okay – this was the UK after all, if a building was on fire it would either be empty or evacuated swiftly. But, just to be safe, they tried calling their mum. No answer. They called again. No answer.
“I had a sense then that something was wrong,” says Massomeh.
Eventually they got in touch with a cousin living in London who explained he was looking for the two sisters. He told the family to pray.
“We were screaming and crying, we couldn’t make sense of it all,” explains Massomeh. Although they didn’t yet have confirmation of their mother’s death, they knew at that moment there was no hope.
After 10 days, the police told the family they suspected the sisters had died in the fire. It was another three months before DNA evidence confirmed this was the case.
“It was difficult because there was no body to bury, there was no place to mourn,” Massomeh says. “We were just at home mourning, looking at the sky.”
Massomeh and Raheleh relocated to the UK so they could fight for justice for their mother. They soon came up against the UK’s hostile immigration environment, forced to reapply for a visa every six months, unable to send Massomeh’s children to school or access public funds. “We realised we had no power, no voice,” says Raheleh.
The hopes and dreams they had once treasured for their lives were lost, as everything became about Grenfell.
“I had wanted to go to university, to marry the man I loved, to one day have children,” says Raheleh. “Everything was taken from me when my mother died. My life feels over.”
With grief came anger – anger at the failures of the authorities, of those who were meant to help, and of the inquiry that came to close at the end of July, five years after the fire.
“I feel the inquiry was designed to keep us distracted and occupied, and it was completely pointless,” insists Raheleh. “There are still no answers. We are more angry now. We are like the embers of a fire that hasn’t gone out and those embers are igniting again.
“The inquiry was not for our justice, it was not for the people who lost family members, and even after all this time we have not had a proper apology from the council, the fire brigade, the Government or anyone.”
As Iranian women, Raheleh also believes their voices were silenced in the aftermath of Grenfell.
“In this country it feels as though women have more rights and are protected more,” she explains. “But the big players in the meetings, they don’t let women speak. We felt we could not speak our truth and we were not allowed to speak our truth. Sometimes it would be subtle, but it was definitely the case that we should be quiet and our voices mattered less than the men.”
‘Tell Her You Love Her’
As Massomeh and Raheleh watched Grenfell burn from 3,400 miles away, Francis Dean was outside the tower on the phone to 32-year-old Zainab Deen, urging her to take her toddler son Jeremiah and leave their flat – to escape the inferno and come to the safety of the ground below. But, like many of her neighbours, Zainab followed the fire brigade’s instructions to remain in the flat. Soon, it was too late to escape.
Zainab told Francis that Jeremiah had died and she would be next. He gave the phone to a nearby firefighter Christopher Batchelor, who described to the inquiry how he had listened to her screams. Before she died, Batchelor passed the phone back to Francis, saying “tell her you love her”.
“I don’t know how I am still alive,” Francis says. “There were times when I wanted to take my own life.”
The grief he feels for Zainab remains raw. His eyes well up when he talks about her, recalling her love of perfumes, how she kept her home so clean and tidy. “She was a vibrant lady,” he says. “She was so bubbly and so fun to be around. She was always cracking jokes”.
When it was confirmed that both Zainab and Jeremiah had died in the fire, her family was informed. But there was one person the authorities were unaware of: Zainab’s mother Hannah. It took Francis to explain her existence, and to ensure Hannah was given the news of her daughter and grandson’s tragic deaths.
Born in rural Sierra Leone to an unmarried mother who could not read or write, Zainab was brought to the UK to stay with her father’s family. It was not until she was an adult that the pair were reunited. After years apart, the two quickly formed a special bond.
“She was always talking about her mother, wanting to look after her,” Francis explains. “Zainab would do anything for her mother, sending her money and things she could sell in her village, as well as paying her rent.”
“I spoke to her and Jeremiah on the Monday,” says Hannah. “He said ‘I love you granma’. By Tuesday they were both dead. I can’t believe she has gone. I can’t believe I never got to see Jeremiah. All I know is that my daughter and her son died in a terrible fire in London far from me.”
Francis is determined to continue Zainab’s legacy by caring for her mother. But the memories of what he saw at Grenfell still haunt him. He describes how he returned to the tower day after day, as though “I was drawn to it”. Despite the trauma he endured, and his closeness to Zainab, he has received little formal support, relying on the kindness of grassroots activist group Grenfell Next of Kin.
“I am scared to talk about what happened,” he admits. “I feel I was used by the police because I gave them information and photos, they took that information but there was no support for me. I was a key witness and I was not recognised as a core participant [in the inquiry].
“I watched the fire getting out of control and it was getting worse, the water was not even reaching the flames. I don’t know why the first responders didn’t tell people like Zainab to get out of the building. I tried to run into the building to go and get her. I’m scared to talk about what I saw that night.”
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‘There Was No Hope After Grenfell’
Today, Mohammed is an energetic four-year-old, running around a family friend’s flat and pretending to be a wolf. He loves Fruit Shoots, chicken and rice, and playing games on mum’s phone. But back in 2017, when his mother Maryam Adam was pregnant, she was terrified the impact of Grenfell would lead to her losing her baby. She had already endured four miscarriages.
“I went to the hospital because I was afraid of losing my baby and they found smoke in my blood,” she says, remembering the chaos in the day after the fire. “When I returned to Grenfell, I was supposed to have an appointment with a support worker to find us a place to stay. No one came. This was the day of the fire. The building was closing and I was being told to leave – but where would I go? Eventually the security guard asked around and a woman gave me a travel card and a hotel address. That was our home for four months”.
With no cooking facilities and no choice but to live off takeaway or hand-outs, Maryam struggled through the remainder of her pregnancy. She developed gestational diabetes and high blood pressure as a result of the poor diet, adding to the stress and trauma of the fire’s aftermath. She suffered from back pain caused by a slipped disc. It was so severe she could not sleep in the hotel bed and had to sleep on the floor.
“No one would do anything,” she says. Her friend Amna Mohammed, who was staying with her in Grenfell, ended up in a homeless day shelter. Maryam’s family moved to a flat in October 2019, more than two years after the fire.
Maryam’s slipped disc soon became debilitating. When Mohammed was only four months old, she collapsed and had to be rushed for emergency surgery. All this time, she was asking for help to get acupuncture to help her manage the pain but every request was refused.
“I learnt that people tell you they will support you but it is on their terms,” she says. “When you ask for something, they don’t accept you. I never asked for anything except for this acupuncture because I couldn’t take painkillers during my pregnancy. The people supporting Grenfell survivors had money for this and that. But not for the treatment I was asking for.”
What frustrated Maryam was how people were offering her help for a range of things, but the one support she urgently needed was denied to her. “It is like if I am very thirsty and someone offers me a plate of delicious food that is not going to help me,” she explains. “Because a cup of water is what I need.”
With the help of Grenfell Next of Kin, Maryam was able to access acupuncture that helped ease her pain. But the episode reinforced her belief that women like her were not being listened to and were not being given the space to advocate for their own needs.
Today, Maryam lives in what she calls “a beautiful flat in a beautiful area” – but the truth is, she just wants to live in a normal council flat. She cannot use the facilities that private tenants and owners enjoy, which makes her feel like a second-class citizen. Plus, living on the third floor is painful for her back issues.
“I am a Grenfell survivor,” Maryam says. “Who is advocating for me?”
As for Amna, she is finally recognised as a Grenfell survivor, and has a home to call her own.
‘I Don’t Like to See Tower Blocks’
Like Maryam, Sepideh Minaei Moghaddam ended up living in a hotel after Grenfell, where she and her toddler son had no choice but to eat a combination of hotel food and takeaways. There was no fridge in the room for her to store milk for her two-year-old, who rapidly started to lose weight.
“He never had fast food before, I would cook food from our culture,” Sepideh, who is from Iran, says. “But he lost weight and I had to feed him something.”
Sepideh and her son lived on the first floor of the tower. She remembers waking up to the smell of smoke at about 1am, and thinking it was a cigarette or someone burning toast. An hour later, she woke again. This time she got out of the building as fast as she could – wrapping her little boy in blankets and grabbing her car keys as she went.
“I sat on the grass and watched the fire,” she recalls. The sight traumatised the pair of them. Her son had recently become potty-trained but the impact of the fire meant he needed nappies again. He suffered from nightmares for years after – as did Sepideh. “Sometimes if I saw the tower, I would just start screaming,” she says.
Sepideh knew that she had to get away from Kensington – she could not bear to live in the shadow of the building she had once called home.
“I don’t want to look at tower blocks,” she says. Not only the remains of Grenfell – any high-rise triggers a traumatic response. But the council was reluctant to get help from other boroughs to rehouse survivors, in case it looked like it wasn’t coping.
“They told me I could have a luxury flat in Kensington and I said ‘no thank you, I prefer to be away from here, somewhere with a garden, not luxury’,” she explains.
Exhausted and traumatised, Sepideh was helped by a volunteer to identify council properties in a leafy London suburb that she knew would be perfect for her and her son – away from Grenfell, away from tower blocks, away from the memories. Together, they lobbied the council to let her move to a different borough and have a new start.
Like Massomeh and Raheleh, Sepideh has been frustrated by the inquiry. “No one is taking responsibility,” she explains. “They are all responsible but no one is taking prime responsibility for anything. It’s very frustrating. They don’t understand our situation, I think”.
Two years after the fire, the pair finally moved into their new home.
“We still remember everything,” she says. “We can never be normal people. Sometimes I am so tired. But I am a strong woman.”
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