Remembering Grenfell and a community united

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire tragedy three years ago, efforts were put in place by the British government to endorse the remediation of buildings with dangerous aluminium composite material cladding, the primary cause of fire spread across all of Grenfell Tower's residential floors. 

Considered to be the deadliest structural fire in the United Kingdom since the 1988 Piper Alpha disaster and the worst UK suburban fire since the Second World War, the Grenfell fire resulted in 70 injuries, and 72 deaths, while 223 people were able to escape. 

Like much of the world, the Grenfell inquiry, ordered by former Prime Minister Theresa May, is currently on hold due to the health risks associated with the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. What has not come to a standstill, however, is Grenfell survivors' determination to carry out their own research on providing exact figures on people found safe, missing, and assumed dead. 

The determination to carry out the research in the midst of the current pandemic stems from lack of confidence in the authorities managing the investigation, whom survivors believe have supplied an insufficient number of official statistics. 

Alongside the anger, pain, and loss felt amongst the Grenfell community, there were also emotions of optimism, courage, strength, and support. With regard to the latter, a significant rescue operation was instigated, by which a vast number of citizens from different backgrounds and cultures got involved to offer support to those affected by the tragedy. 

Mosques, churches, and community centres, for example, all provided clothes, food and water, and several members of the public provided items and money. Charitable organisations such as the British Red Cross (BRC) also helped out, delivering practical and emotional assistance in rest centres to organising 40,000 boxes of donated items. 

As the completion date for remediation works is uncertain, what is clear is the preservation of a united community amongst the witnesses and survivors of the fire. Besides the afore-mentioned forms of support provided in the aftermath of the fire, such a union could also best be seen via the lens of the Hubb Community kitchen, a community group of women who used the kitchen at Al-Manaar, a Muslim cultural heritage centre in West London. 

Directed by Abdurahman Sayed, the centre opened its doors and gave women the opportunity to cook twice a week for the community and/or their families after being dislocated. Hubb, otherwise known as love in English, came to represent the core theme of the community group, whereby as more local women began to join the group, members began embracing community and assisting their neighbours at times of need. 

As word spread about the group, gradually more women from different cultures joined and adapted to an environment of cooking together, exchanging recipes, conversing, and laughing. Through the community group, these women were able to seek comfort from the devastating effects of the fire and naturally begin their journeys of uniting, healing, and looking ahead to the future. 

With the assistance of Meghan Markle, via the Royal Foundation, and UnLtd, the primary supplier of support to social entrepreneurs in and across the UK, the proceeds received from the community's cookbook titled Together: Our Community Cookbook has enabled the kitchen to undergo complete refitting and refurbishment, and by consequence, allowed the women to access the kitchen seven days a week rather than two. 

"When the women come to the kitchen at Al-Manaar, the women feel at home," said Ahlam Saied, a key member of the Hubb Community Kitchen, originally from Mosul, Iraq. "If you were to see the environment at Al-Manaar, for example women with their children, all cooking, expressing their love, and sometimes crying, you will see that we are able to share our emotions of happiness and sadness. I think this is good. The kitchen is almost like counselling and it's incredibly therapeutic," Ahlam added. 

Aside from the cookbook, Markle in particular has also supported the women by encouraging them to launch their separate projects. Through food, today's project developments include women supporting the homeless, refugees via collaborative work with the BRC, students at schools, and NHS staff during the pandemic. 

One key project is also that of Saeid's Iraqi food stall at Portobello Road market in London. Accompanying the Rainbow Roasted Vegetable dish and cream filled pastries (Shaabiyat) is Saeid's signature fava beans and dill rice (Timman Bagila), complemented either with yogurt salad (Jajeek) or Saeid's very own green sauce, comprising of coriander, green chilli, garlic, and lemon. 

With some of the profits going to causes in Iraq, Yemen, and Sudan, Saeid, over the next few months, hopes to introduce other notable Iraqi dishes such as white beans with meat stew (Fasoulia), layers of filo pastry filled with ground nuts sweetened with syrup or honey (Baklawa), and egg or croquette-like shaped balls made with bulgur or potato dough, filled with a ground meat mixture (Kubba). 

Owing to a sufficiency in funds from the Royal Foundation, Ahlam has been able to keep her stall up and running and achieve her aim of educating the wider public not only about the Hubb community but also about Iraqi cuisine. 

In Saeid's own words, "visitors' curiosity and interest to learn more about Iraqi cuisine has helped open an important dialogue and opportunity to teach others about the history, flavours, and concepts of Iraqi cuisine." In Saeid's view, the variety of backgrounds and cultures connecting at her stall to converse and learn reminds her of the integration that came about following the fire. 

Commenting on the similarities, Saeid told The New Arab: "Since I started working at Portobello Market, I feel very happy that people living here in London are able to love and live together in peace. I have learnt that people here in the UK are treated like equals, and this could definitely be seen after the fire broke out, for example. 

"After the fire, you could see everyone hugging each other and providing support through food, water, and clothes. Everyone from all backgrounds simply came together. The fire united the community. This union can without a doubt be compared to the unification amongst people visiting my stall. 

"People from all backgrounds communicate and merge as one. In my opinion, the union amongst different communities visiting my stall helps break borders." With this in mind, one can link the significance of Saeid's stall to the recent expansion of the Iraqi food scene across London. 

Such developments include Babajani, the UK's first Mesopotamian Delicatessen in Notting Hill and Borough Market's JUMA stall, predominantly selling different shaped Kubba. The dispersion of Iraqi cuisine outside of Edgware Road, London's 'Arab street,' where a plethora of Middle Eastern restaurants are located, is important because of citizens' heightened ability to explore the rich and unique flavours and ingredients not regularly used in other Middle Eastern cuisines such as Lebanese and Syrian. 

In the years to come, the spread of Iraqi cuisine will also be important when shedding light on the positive characteristics that Iraq has to present – in this case food – rather than the negative attributes that have dictated global media. 

by Zainab Mehdi

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