“It was a bit strange, it felt awkward, everyone was crowding around me,” says Sara Chebiouni, aged nine, of her return to school the week after the Grenfell Tower fire destroyed her home. Sara escaped from her family’s 9th floor flat with her parents and older brother. Her uncle, aunt and three cousins, who lived on the 21st floor, died. In The Guardian.
Sara, now in year 5, is one of three Grenfell Tower survivors in her school, Thomas Jones, which is among 10 said by Kensington and Chelsea council to have been significantly affected by bereavements or where children have lost their homes. Another seven schools, among them four primaries and a nursery, had pupils who died, with Kensington Aldridge Academy losing five. One school has almost 40 families in temporary accommodation.
Amid the horror, grief, rage and confusion of the months since that night, 14 June, Sara’s mother, Hanan Wahabi, says her daughter’s school has been a sanctuary. “I can pray at home, prayers you can do anywhere, but this is different. Lindsay’s [the deputy head’s] office is our own kind of therapy.”
Wahabi, who stood outside the tower all night, waiting in vain for her brother to come out, describes how the headteacher, David Sellens, found her family in a rescue centre. “They were the first, Mr Sellens and Lindsay. They came to look for us, to see us in our pyjamas.”
Johnson gave them her personal mobile number and offered practical help: new school uniform and bags for the children, free places at after-school and breakfast clubs. The contrast with the failure of council officers and local politicians to connect with residents is stark.
When talking to teachers, parents and children at these schools, the social connectedness and physical closeness of this community are inescapable, as is the impact of the losses they have sustained. In contrast to terrorist attacks and train or plane crashes, which typically affect people from a much wider geographical area, Grenfell is a uniquely local tragedy. While the Aberfan colliery spoil tip collapse of 1966 and the Dunblane massacre 30 years later each killed more pupils in a single school than Grenfell did, it is hard to think of any peacetime precedent in Britain for the multiple bereavements and displacements affecting a clutch of neighbourhood schools, not to mention the continuing trauma of their proximity to the disaster site.
But headteachers were clear from the start that their most urgent task was to help children to cope. “So many things have come up that we would never have anticipated,” says Cooper. “Parents coming in and not being able to manage things like bedwetting, anxiety about cooking or fridges, children suddenly describing things they have seen. We’ve always said that we’ll keep you safe and it’s about looking at the meaning of that word now, because it has changed.”
Read the full article ‘We tried to cope hour by hour’: the schools in shadow of Grenfell Tower
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