'We have been scarred for life': Londoner who lost six family members in Grenfell Tower calls for inquiry to 'investigate role of racism' in tragedy

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  • June 14, 2020
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Hisam Choucair lost six close family members in the Grenfell Tower blaze – his mother, sister, brother-in-law and three nieces.

His youngest niece, Zainab, was just three years old when she died on June 14, 2017.

The child was one of 72 people to perish in the Notting Hill tower block in the early hours of that morning as flammable cladding casing the building saw the fire burn and smoke rise over west London.

His mother Sirria lived in Flat 191 on the 22nd floor, his sister Nadia and brother in law Bassem in flat 193 with their young girls Mierna, Fatima and Zainab.

Today Hisam, a 43-year-old Transport for London worker, will make his way as close to the tower as he can, lay down flowers and say a prayer for them. He said he will tell his family that he will continue to fight for justice in their names.

On Sunday Britons are being urged to ‘Go Green for Grenfell’ from their homes to mark the anniversary (REUTERS)

“The intention is to go down to the tower to access the inner cordon, and to lay down some flowers and just say a prayer,” Hisam explained.

“We [a group of next of kin] will go to pay respects and to show that we will not be silenced.

“And [that we will] continue our long fight for justice and for things to change, and to address issues which have contributed to the atrocity and the inferno, and to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”

After a pause, he added: “We do what we can – we are just normal people… We have been scarred for life.”

Hisam is among relatives of victims who believe that racism played a roll in the tragedy.

They are now calling for the official Grenfell Inquiry to examine whether the diversity of the building’s tenants was a factor in how their calls were treated on the night, and how their survivors and relatives have been handled by authorities in the past three years.

Thousands of people around the world have turned out in recent weeks to protest against racism and police brutality after the death of George Floyd.

Mr Floyd, a black man from Minneapolis, died on May 25 after a white officer held him down by pressing a knee into his neck for nearly nine minutes. The incident was caught on video, and millions around the world have watched Mr Floyd say “I can’t breathe” on screen.

Hisam “took the knee” – an act which has become a symbol of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement – outside Grenfell Tower earlier this week.

“In my opinion it is paramount that racism is looked at as part of the Inquiry,” he explained. “When I did that the other day, it wasn’t just about what happened in America. This [racism], is something that we wanted to address from the beginning of the inquiry.

On June 14 2017 72 people lost their lives in Grenfell Tower (REUTERS)

“When I took the knee I did it in respect of George Floyd’s family because I feel his pain, because I’ve shared his pain.

“When my sister rang the London Fire Brigade control room, she told them ‘we can’t breathe’. The LFB control room failed to act on the seriousness of her comments

“You only have to look at Grenfell. The majority of the people were from ethnic backgrounds. Their lives mattered.

“It’s horrible to say, but if the building had been in Knightsbridge, and the majority of people had been from a white background, the response might have been different.”

Hisam believes the inquiry should set an example and tackle the issue head on.

He added: “The inquiry are saying ‘if something like this is to be looked at, it shouldn’t be done as part of the inquiry’, but no… The inquiry should be setting an example for truth and for justice for people.”

Hisam, along with other relatives of those who died in the tower, is also continuing to ask questions over why disabled people – like his own mother – were placed in a high rise block by authorities, and why the building was not better kept.

Hisam Choucair, who lost six members of his family in a single day, shared a picture of their coffins in a Queen’s Park mosque with the Standard (Hisam Choucair)

Before hanging up the phone, the Londoner said he would send pictures of his family, and of their coffins inside Al-Khoei mosque in Queen’s Park in 2017. He explained he does not mind sharing all the details, however painful, because he wants to continue to speaking out on their behalf.

“Half my family was wiped out in a day,” he said. “There’s nothing I can do to bring them back, but there is something I can do to challenge the injustice of how they went.”

The disaster is the subject of a criminal investigation and ongoing public inquiry, which has been beset by delays. Thousands of people with connections to Grenfell have been interviewed or given statements, including survivors, emergency workers, developers and council chiefs.

This week Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea Council Leader, Elizabeth Campbell, said its resumption would be “a welcome step towards truth, and to justice”.

She wrote in a public letter: “No matter your point of view, your role, or which organisation you represent now or previously, Grenfell is a tragedy that should not have happened. It is a tragedy that can never happen again.

The 2nd Anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire – In pictures

A representative for the victims’ next of kin told the Standard: “There is a reason that we have a problem with institutional racism – because we don’t want to get into conversations about race.

“Right now, what you can’t ignore is that the overwhelming majority of people who died in the tower were ethnic minorities, so the question is why do those people end up in the front line of vulnerability? The issues around housing, race in housing provision and safety, duty of care, services – all of those are part of the Grenfell story, part of why they weren’t listened to, even on the night. So it has to be part of the terms of reference of the inquiry.”

In a statement, Ms Campbell said the council was doing all it could to help the public inquiry and that it welcomed the “intense scrutiny.”

“We will continue doing all we can to assist and help the public inquiry, as demonstrated in phase one, and we understand that the actions and decisions of those serving the Council prior to 14 June 2017 will be under intense scrutiny,” she said.

“We welcome this, and we hope those giving evidence over the coming months and years accept it.

Artwork by children affected by Grenfell Tower fire

“Our first thoughts and our last thoughts will always be with those who lost their lives, their families, their friends. We will help to ensure lessons are learned and they can be applied by every council, every authority, every building owner, every private landlord, and every single person that has responsibility for housing in this country.”

As the annual vigil at the base of the block carcass cannot take place due to Covid-19 restrictions, survivors and relatives have created online events – including online multi-faith services – to come together and mark the anniversary this Sunday.

A ‘Go Green for Grenfell’ initiative has seen green butterflies have appear on walls, lampposts and letterboxes around west London over the past week, and after dark on Sunday many windows across the UK will be streaming a bright green light from their phones or television screens as a mark of solidarity with both survivors and the bereaved.

The bells of St Paul’s and Southwark cathedrals will toll 72 times in honour of the 72 victims.