We should not assume that everyone would like to speak English in an emergency. London W11 is where all parts of the globe meet to form a very unique and special part of the capital. It is rich, diverse, creative, intelligent, caring. Speaking the language round here isn’t just about communication, it is about respect.
On the Friday afternoon following the fire at Grenfell Tower, shocked residents and volunteers, with Emma Dent Coad, our newly elected MP, gathered at the Rugby Portobello Trust, a community centre close to the tower. The hall was packed with Grenfell Tower residents and volunteers, crying and hugging. Volunteers were helping residents with an array of tasks, as well as offering emotional support.
There was a list on the wall where all the flats were annotated by floor and number. Residents were encouraged to check themselves off as accounted for, to indicate those that they had seen or heard from and those who were known to be in hospitals. There were lots of empty boxes on the list, lots of people missing or unaccounted for.
The meeting was chaired by Mark Simms, director of the umbrella charity People Potential Possibilities or P3. First, he announced that the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea was no longer dealing with the matter, then he told residents where they could collect financial assistance, how much they were entitled to, where to go for questions regarding housing and who was offering legal advice.
The council was invisible, everything seemed impossible and there was little to no empathy at state level.
But many people seemed not to be paying attention; then it became apparent that they didn’t speak fluent English and couldn’t understand this important information. A lady who spoke both English and Arabic got quite upset that there wasn’t any official translation provision and then went around the room translating what she could to people who spoke Arabic. Non-residents were asked to leave the room, including the woman who had been translating, while the meeting carried on.
It became impossible to see how the concerns of these residents were going to get through to government without the council or a means to achieve mutual understanding between the relevant authorities and the survivors and their families. Although the Rugby Portobello Trust and the volunteers were doing a fantastic job, they were not trained in disaster management and the people of Grenfell Tower deserved professionals and translation.
The council was invisible, everything seemed impossible and there was little to no empathy at state level. Survivors were treated badly, the community, on the whole, was ignored and treated as an inconvenience by those in charge. For many, this is too hard to believe. So picture this: we had to fight for even the most basic communication. After eight days, there was a physical sign for the first time. Eight days, no signage, no information. This is for those who are fluent in English; it took 22 days for something in Arabic, Kensington’s second language.
Persuading the charity Inquest to translate information was easy and took 72 hours, thanks to volunteers. Language Reach translated 18 languages in 48 hours, free. The council and the government have no excuse. It’s almost as if they don’t understand their capital city’s history. As has often been the case in the aftermath, the community and volunteers have had to plug the gaps left by an absent council and preoccupied parliament. The strength and dignity on display, across all cultures and ages, is an example to the whole country.
It’s a shame you can’t appreciate how bad it became, as it would make you understand how well this community holds itself together. Folk round here are smart as well as tough. If they were resourced, they would rebuild stronger and better than the council could manage. Maybe that’s part of the problem.
We are fundraising for Al-Hasaniya, a local Moroccan women’s centre, and have set up a website to host all translated documents for the community. We would like to make it much easier, but we need help. We urge the government, mayor of London, RBKC council and all NGOs to add to the growing library of information. We urge them to provide translation in the following languages: Arabic, Somali, Urdu, Tagalog, Tigrinya, Farsi, Pashto, Russian, Bengali, Turkish, Polish, Spanish, Romanian, Hindi, Italian, Hungarian, Portuguese, French and Japanese. And please make provision for this list to grow. This will allow everyone, regardless of which dialect they prefer to speak, to be able to read important documents. Help them by giving them the choice. Allow families to understand together.
Everything has been difficult to comprehend – please don’t make the information you provide impossible to understand.