LONDON – Two years after the Grenfell tower fire in London, in which 72 people died, a group of women survivors meets in a community kitchen to share recipes, sorrow and joy.
On June 14, 2017 the fire destroyed a 24-story block of flats in the rich London borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
The disaster led to a wave of citizen solidarity, visits from Queen Elizabeth II and other members of the royal family, and an outpouring of public support.
In January 2018, Meghan Markle – who had recently arrived in London for her wedding with Prince Henry- paid a private visit to the communal kitchen of the Islamic cultural center Al-Manaar, where women who lost relatives, friends and their homes in the tragedy meet twice a week.
“We had already received the visit of many politicians, so when one day they asked me if I could cook for a VIP, I agreed,” Munira Mahmud, a 35-year-old Ugandan woman who arrived in the UK fourteen years ago, told Efe.
The VIP was the current Duchess of Sussex, who at that time was looking for possible charity projects.
“She wanted to help, so I gave her an apron and five kilos of rice to wash,” Mahmud, who is one of the promoters of the communal stoves for the victims of Grenfell, said.
She praised the warmth and affection of the former actress, who she described as “modest and generous” and having her feet on the ground.
The women, of more than ten nationalities, have since been relocated to other homes but continue to come to Al-Manaar to “share and remember,” she added.
Lillian Olwa, another Ugandan woman who arrived in London in 2000 as a refugee and who, like her compatriot, lost everything in the fire, told Efe: “The kitchen became a therapeutic place, it is still key in the healing process.”
After several visits, the Duchess launched a book of recipes with the Royal Foundation to raise funds so the kitchen could open daily.
“Together: our community cookbook” was published in September.
It includes homemade dishes from Iraq, Yemen, Russia, Uganda, Algeria and Lebanon.
The foundation used the funds from the publication to renovate the kitchen, known as “Hubb” (love in Arabic), and support women in social initiatives and help them overcome the trauma that, two years later, they are still suffering from.
“I lost my best friend Rania and her two children, I was the last person she talked to on the phone, and I remember that she was very happy that I had managed to escape, being aware that she was going to die,” Mahmoud said.
“She was the type of person that is always thinking of others.”
Lillian Olwa, another one of the survivors, said the tragedy and subsequent transfer to temporary accommodation reminded her of her escape from the conflict in northern Uganda.
It rekindled “many traumatic experiences” that she is trying to overcome with the help of psychologists.
Iraqi Ahlam Saeid, 62, mother of four adult children, said she cannot forget what she heard and saw that fateful night.
“The screams and the orange line of the fire expanding,” she added.
The day Efe visited the “Hubb” the oven was broken but Saeid brought a huge dish from home called timman bagilla, a typical food at Al-Manaar
made with rice, beans, dill and chicken.
Saeid arrived in the UK in 2001 from Mosul and is one of the women that used the help from the foundation to launch a charity project – an Iraqi food stall at Portobello Road market.
She said she wants to promote the image of her country and encourage her fellow Iraqis who feel “alone and rejected.”
Mahmud has also launched a project called Kina Mama, an organization that offers nutritious food to vulnerable women who have given birth.
Olwa plans to support women with AIDS.
Yemeni Halima Al-Hudafi, 31, offers revision classes to children.
In all their projects they can count with moral and practical support from their friends Jennifer-Fatima Ondokor, Leila Hedjem, Oxana Sinitsyna, Intsak Alsa, Amaal Abd Elrasoul and other women from the Grenfell kitchen.
All of them have transformed, though handmade food, tragedy into love.