Writer Joe Zadeh spent an afternoon volunteering at a Grenfell Tower donation centre. We asked him what the experience taught him about London’s resilience...
When I turned the corner of Clarendon Road and saw the burnt-out skeleton of Grenfell Tower for the first time, something in my chest flipped sickeningly. It didn’t look real. It was almost too hard to visually process. Up until that point everything I had seen had come through media dissemination; to now witness that charred tower in person felt like a hallucination or a nightmare. Like something CGI in an otherwise real scenery; a scar, error or glitch. I’d come to volunteer out of a feeling of helplessness, but when you see the building your empathy is curdled by horror and anger.
Yet somehow, the streets around me were defiant. Tributes line the roads near Grenfell as people lay candles and leave flowers and messages. Under the Westway there’s music playing, food being cooked and distributed for free, and tributes of art on every patch of wall. Speakers address crowds of local residents and visitors about the social and political context of why things like this can happen in Britain in 2017, and why it must never happen again. On a tree near Latimer Road, I see a sign asking for volunteers at nearby Kensal Community Centre, requesting spare hands, sellotape and pens. So I set off in that direction, buying every single roll of sellotape in every single newsagent I see en route.
At the door of the community centre, a queue of volunteers stand waiting to be allotted tasks. Inside, it’s a frantic and inspiring ecosystem of altruism, as bin-bag mountains of donations are passed along rows until they eventually pop out the other end as perfectly sorted boxes of mens’ clothes, womens’ clothes, kids’ clothes, bedding, toiletries, electricals, anything and everything. I found myself in womenswear, sorting skirts, dresses and tops. Alongside me, volunteers as young as 13 and as old as 65 were rolling their sleeves up and getting stuck in. One man had driven from Leicester, another had friends who had lived in Grenfell Tower.
I was only there for one day, but every day since, centres set up across west London have been tirelessly sorting donations for the survivors. And every day, they are looking for people like you to lend a few hours. Volunteering won’t alleviate that feeling of utter helplessness you feel every time you look at the news; no amount of folded jumpers and iPhone chargers will fix what happened to these innocent people. But when you see, in the corner of your eye, someone who survived the tragedy come in quietly with an organiser without anyone in the hall really noticing, to pick out food and clothing and shoes, you realise: it’s something at least.