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The importance of empathy

On Thursday 21 June, two Year 10 students, Jemima and Belnice, led the whole School Assembly. Their presentation, on the importance of empathy, was inspired by the Grenfell Tower tragedy. They shared a moving story they had created based on the experiences of those caught up in the events of 14 June 2017. The story conjured up in a straightforward way, what it was like and continues to be for all those affected by Grenfell and brought home to our students the real impact events we all hear about on the news can have on the lives of those involved in them.

Well done to Belnice and Jemima for their assembly, which was both moving and inspiring. We thank them both for allowing us to share their story and its message here.

Grenfell Tower Story

The Grenfell Tower fire broke out exactly one year and one week ago, on the 14 June, 2017. We have combined the stories of the victims into one fictional victim, and the emotions, thoughts, memories and words of people involved, into her experience. This is in the hope that, after perhaps hearing about Grenfell on the news a few times last summer, we can connect to each individual involved, in some way other than through a BBC News broadcaster.

Imagine a girl, a student, sitting in the heat of June, staring down at her maths paper. 5. She knows that can't be the right answer. But it’s all she can think of. One year ago, 5 people she knew, were lost to a fire. 5 people she cared about. The words on the page turn into a watery blur, as she remembers the events of last year.

Exactly one year ago, she was able to see their faces, other than in the hundreds of ‘missing’ posters, which really meant: ‘dead’. Other than in the lists of the dead, the tributes, the articles, the documentaries.

On that night, she had fallen asleep on the sofa, but was woken by the noise of sirens outside, the urgency of her neighbour’s fire alarm. A wave of smoke billowed into her eyes, as she opened the door. There was an overwhelming feeling of confusion, and panic.

She rushed to the bathroom. Her hands shook as she wrapped a wet towel around her head, and another for her mum. They stumbled out into the acrid smoke.“Get out quickly! - I'll go and alert everyone else.” her mum said. She struggled to catch her breath, as she hurried towards safety. That feeling of running down the stairs, that was the killer for her.

She ran out into the shouts of terror, where she heard people screaming, crying and praying. She only lived on the 5th floor. All she could think about was her brother, her friends and neighbours, and her mum. She looked back at the burning building, thinking about how high up her mum would’ve gone to save others. She tried calling to a fireman, but smoke formed a barrier against her words. She saw her neighbour, Nick, reuniting with his wife. “We've lost everything.” he said.

People around her: faces of helplessness and uncertain hope, crushed by imminent grief. She watched as people shouted to a woman trapped on the 19th floor, clutching her baby in her arms. One of the people in the crowd called it ‘a towering inferno.’

A man watched as another man jumped, on fire, from the 10th floor. At the same time, huge pieces of flaming debris crashed down, like sunspots. It made her feel so small in all the chaos. Tears welled up painfully, but the thick smoke blocked their way once again. The Harrow Club ushered her in. Everyone and anyone was there: Bhupinder Singh, a foreign aid volunteer, Mark Defoe, manager of the club, and Zayad Cred, a well known member of the community, comforting survivors.

The club was like a refugee camp. And the sounds from outside reverberated around the room, forming into the wails from survivors. Food and drink were pushed into her hands, but she felt numb and the lump in her throat took away her appetite. Things faded into long periods of nothing. Worse than tired firefighters appeared and disappeared. Outside, Grenfell became a reality. Inside, a nightmare.

She awoke, and realised she was curled up in a chair, amongst other survivors, like rows of dead crops. She stepped outside. Her tired eyes instantly fell on Grenfell. Once a palace for so many, now reduced to a blackened husk, a mass graveyard, berated by persistent jets of water.

In the streets surrounding the tower, people crowded, crying, consoling, worrying. They had come from miles away, to try and relieve a tiny amount of the infinite pain that pulsed through North Kensington. They talked to the television crews and tacked missing posters to walls, layed tributes, made frantic phone calls. Everyone wondered where the help was, 10, 11, 12 hours after the fire began. The authorities had frozen.

The girl walked past the blankets being handed out, and the chains of people unloading donations. Down the road that would be host to an endless flow of emotions. Never to be forgotten.

One year later, she walked steadily and silently down that road. She arrived at school and slipped quietly into the exam hall, behind everyone else. The squares of desks and students merged into the systematic windows of Grenfell. People had been born, made friends, went to school, got married, had children and grandchildren in Grenfell.

In her memory, Grenfell was a beautiful, strong flower, and its complex, intricate layers of petals represented every individual - their journey, struggles, hopes, culture and beliefs. A broadcaster she had heard, called it ‘a human disaster of catastrophic proportions’. But in their ‘catastrophic’ ignorance and disregard for the voices of Grenfell, the government had plucked out 72 petals, and left the rest, withered and lost, to grieve.

5. Was the answer five? Was it her mother, her brother, her friends and neighbour? The people in Rania’s flat on the 13th floor, in the home of Nabil’s family, 10 floors higher? No. The number was a lot bigger than 5. But that night, it felt as if it would never stop growing.
So imagine the victims, surrounded on all sides by burning walls, watched by helpless bystanders.
Trapped in the dark and waiting for their deaths…

We believe that empathy plays a huge part in the Grenfell tragedy, and recovering from it. Often we see tragic stories on the news and isolate ourselves from them, disconnect. But at the same time, we tut at the government for its poor response. Yes, talking about this tragedy is important. But feeling it is more important.

It’s important to have empathy for the people who lost lives, families, friends and a home that night. To feel their suffering, helplessness and pain, and connect with this. To listen to each person’s story.

Unfortunately, politics is often placed over the lives and wellbeing of people. In this way, we can relate Grenfell to many recent issues, such as the migrant crisis, and Windrush.

But by connecting with Grenfell, we are one step closer to being a more united nation, that values every voice, in order to prevent tragedies like Grenfell, to comfort and protect survivors, victims and families, and serve justice for Grenfell Tower.

Belnice and Jemima