Grenfell fire: The school providing sanctuary to survivors, ‘I don’t have a home, so I come here’

Three Thomas Jones pupils were forced to flee the burning tower last year

Harriet Agerholm
Wednesday 13 June 2018 21:33
Meet the children who go to school in the shadow of Grenfell Tower

A year after the blaze at Grenfell Tower, nine-year-old Safiya El-Hafedi keeps having dreams about fire. In one of her most recent, there were imaginary flames in her house. “Then my family all died and I was flying up to the sky,” she says. “And I saw my friend that died in Grenfell and my cousin Mehdi. Then it stopped, for some reason. That’s all I remember.”

Safiya is sitting in her deputy headteacher’s office at Thomas Jones Primary School, five minutes walk from the plastic-wrapped shell of the highrise. Five members of her family, the El-Wahabis, died in the early hours of 14 June 2017. Safiya’s cousins Mehdi, aged eight, Yasin, 20, and Nur Huda, 16, were killed in their 21st-floor flat along with their parents, Abdulaziz, 52, and Faouzia, 41.

Several children at the school have been directly affected by the inferno, which resulted in 72 deaths. Some had friends or relatives in the tower and watched the flames spread up the 24-storey building. Three children lived in the tower and were forced to flee.

​Hafsa Khalloud, aged 11, describes how her mother received a phone call from a friend in a neighbouring building on the night of the blaze. “Get out,” she told her. The fire was two storeys below their flat. “My mum got my dad up, then my dad held my little sister and my brother woke up. I put on some slippers,” says Hafsa.

“When we were in year 5 we did a fire lesson and I remembered you have to cover your mouth, so I grabbed my cardigan to cover my mouth when we were running down the stairs,” she says. “It was quite scary because I didn’t know what was going on.”

Sara Chebiouni, aged nine, recalls being woken by her brother, who picked her up and carried her into the corridor. There, they were stopped by a firefighter, who told them to go back to the flat. “The fireman said you have to go up, you have to go up,” says Sara. “But he didn’t. He just ignored him and walked past.” According to Sara, her mother was forced to jump over the firefighter’s foot to escape the doomed apartment.

The Metropolitan Police are investigating the London Fire Brigade over its “stay put policy” on the night of the fire. In a report on the disaster, fire safety engineer Barbara Lane claims the evacuation of Grenfell residents should have started by 1.30am, half an hour after the fire had started. The guidance was only abandoned shortly before 3am, by which time the tower’s single staircase was filled with thick, toxic smoke, according to the report.

Harriet Bingley, a teacher of a year 5 class at Thomas Jones, says the children have been hit by “different waves of realisation” in the year since the fire. First, there was shock, then symptoms of post-traumatic stress, she says. “You could hear them talking about it in the playground amongst themselves. From the younger children up to year 6, they would communicate differently.”

Deputy headteacher Lindsay Johnson says nursery children at the school have been using toys to reconstruct the tower in miniature and then “play things out”. They have also been preoccupied with dressing as firefighters, as if they want to be “ready if something like that happens again”, she says.

The school has a policy where children can leave class and go to Ms Johnson’s office. There, they can draw or write in secret diaries, she says. “For lots of them that was exciting – they could have something they lock up in my cupboard and know nobody was going to look.” Other children just want quiet. “There’s been so much support and attention, the idea of having just a moment of silence has been appealing,” Ms Johnson says.

Safiya says using felt tips in Ms Johnson’s office helps her feel better. “You draw what you’re feeling,” she says. “Lindsay lets me when I’m upset colour in in her office and it just makes me feel better than being in the playground where it’s really loud and stuff.”

Sara, who was also related to the El-Wahabi family, comes to Ms Johnson’s office, too. “I feel like I haven’t got a home, so I come back here,” says Sara. She and her mother are still living in a hotel. With no fridge or kitchen, the family have to go out to eat or buy takeaway food. “I’m sick of it,” says the nine-year-old. “Sometimes I get rice and pasta from the hotel restaurant, but it just gets boring.” She misses a traditional Moroccan dish made with rice and vegetables her mother used to make.

Many of the children are becoming upset more regularly as the fire’s one-year anniversary approaches, says Ms Johnson. “There is a sense now and in the last month that certain children have begun to revisit,” she says, describing what she calls the “anniversary effect”. “You begin on the road to recovery, but as the first anniversary comes around, you feel like you’re going backwards and you become preoccupied and emotional again,” she says.

“Certain children were coming into my office and saying: ‘Oh my god I’m beginning to think about it a lot again.’ And we talked about how it was natural and it was summer again and it was Ramadan again and it’s inevitable and that’s OK.”

Selma Ladoul, aged 10, who lives next to the tower and knew many of those who died, says the anniversary is a difficult time. “As it’s getting closer and closer it’s reminding me even more,” she says.

Describing the things that make her upset, she says: “Sometimes if I look out the window and I see it [Grenfell Tower]. Sometimes if I see documentaries about it or I see videos of the people who lived there and died – it just doesn’t help.”

The teachers at Thomas Jones say they are aware of what can cause the children distress, including fire alarms and sirens, but they are trying to desensitise them. “We have to do a fire drill [every term],” says Ms Johnson. “The first two we just took those children off site so they didn’t have to be exposed to it at all. The last one though, we let the parents know, but we did keep them in the school. We’re always trying to work back to a sense of normality.”

In some respects, North Kensington appears to be returning to normal. The blackened husk of Grenfell Tower, which once scarred the west London skyline, is now masked with white plastic sheeting.

But the children at Thomas Jones have not forgotten. One year ago, charred concrete and melted cladding rained down on the pavements near their school. The debris cooled over the following days and Selma found a lump of it. Long after the rubble has been cleared away, Selma still has her piece.

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