Sister of Egyptian Grenfell Tower victim: ‘I have hope she is still alive’
At 1.38am on Wednesday 14 June Rania Ibrahim streamed a live video on her Facebook wall from inside her home, a flat on the 23rd floor of Grenfell Tower where she lived with her husband and two young children. The building is on fire, she says, holding the phone out of the window to show viewers that the blaze had reached the 20th floor and is making its way in her direction.
Rania recites the shahada – there is no God but God – and asks that God forgive her. The sirens of ambulances and police cars wail and the sky is filled with smoke. Someone screams from the window to the people below, “we are stuck on the 23rd floor”. Rania turns to tell her two daughters, one who is four, the other who is five, to sit down and asks God to protect them from such a terrible, sudden death.
Over in Egypt Rania’s brother is preparing for suhour, the pre-dawn meal eaten by Muslims during Ramadan before they begin their day of fasting. He has his Facebook feed open, checking photos and news posted by friends and family, when he sees a video of his sister stuck on the top floor of a blazing tower.
Immediately Mohammed calls his sister who confirms she is in the safest area – the fire started on the other side of the building, she says. He continues to call her at regular intervals, they speak for a minute or less at a time so she can conserve her battery, and each time Rania tells him the kids are ok and someone is coming for them.
Hassan, Rania’s husband, is visiting family in Egypt and drives straight to the airport and takes a flight to London that same night. At around 3.40am Mohammed calls Rania again but the phone doesn’t ring.
Sayyeda, Rania’s older sibling, is on the phone to her sister when the flat catches fire. Her neighbour stands at the window speaking to his family until the flames reach him. When his hand begins to burn he throws himself out.
“I felt I was going to die, I collapsed. I look at Rania as if she’s my daughter,” says Rasha, Rania’s older sister, who is recounting the tragic series of events from her home in Cairo where she lives with her family.
Rania was studying law in Egypt but took a break and came to the UK in 2009 when Sayyeda was diagnosed with cancer. She met her Sudanese-British husband Hassan Awad here. Hassan worked in a local mosque but was not in full-time employment so the family was housed in three different blocks of social housing before being settled in Grenfell Tower where they lived for just over a year.
According to Rasha, Rania often told her sister she was unhappy in the UK. She felt unsafe living so high up for a start and since arriving in the country she developed asthma as she couldn’t cope with the cold weather. She felt lonely and homesick so she and her husband decided to buy a flat in Egypt and planned to move home imminently.
Hassan was the first person Rania called when she became aware of the fire. He asked her to leave the building but she said no because emergency services had asked her to stay put and she believed they would reach her: “She had a lot of confidence in the fireman and the police,” says Rasha. Her sister received conflicting advice, she says, as later police told her she should get out.
“Get out where?” she asks on the video, as the smoke billows in from the window and corridor.
Mohammed’s conversation with his sister took place over two hours, which puts a lie to media reports that claimed the fire spread in 15 minutes. Rania, her children and her neighbours were in the flat for at least two hours waiting to be rescued. Like other people who lost family in the fire, Rasha has questions starting with why did no one attempt to rescue her sister and nieces, why were helicopters not dispatched to help people on the higher floors and why were there no safety nets to catch people whose only option was to jump.
Lost in the fire an elderly man knocks on the door and Rania ushers him in to where several other neighbours are gathered. “This shows part of Rania’s personality,” says Rasha, “not only thinking about herself.” Every time the door opened more smoke would enter the flat yet Rania’s spirit and kind nature prevailed, says Rasha, which is evident throughout her live stream.
No one has heard anything from Rania since the last time her sister and brother spoke to her on the phone. A DNA blood sample has been taken from her sister but neither her remains nor those of her children have been found in the burnt-out flat. Authorities have kept the family waiting, ignored them and offered no answers.
Instead they have been told it will take six months to confirm whether or not Rania has died so the family is waiting on this information before they have the funeral. Six months is far too long, says Rasha, for a grieving family who would take some comfort in closure.
"When my Mum died I was in great pain but it’s different with Rania, I don’t have that great pain, maybe because I still have hope, a very strong hope, that she’s still alive," she says. “I want and hope that they will find out what really happened and tell us about Rania and if she’s still alive. That needs to happen quickly. I still have hope that she will still be safe somewhere and that she will come back.”
Two weeks on from the fire in west London campaigners and members of the community are furious that the Metropolitan Police are saying there are 80 confirmed deaths and will not even publish an estimate. They believe there are hundreds more. Residents of the tower have started compiling their own list of victims and survivors among the growing sentiment that there is a cover-up by authorities who want to avoid civil unrest.
The fire was caused by a faulty fridge-freezer but it was the highly flammable cladding used on the building that has been the focus of investigations because it is believed to be this which helped the fire spread across 24 floors and 120 flats. Rasha wants authorities to improve safety regulations for housing similar to Grenfell Tower and for emergency services to improve their means and tools for saving people.
"I don’t care if police or firemen or authorities or people in charge are going to be punished or not, what matters is that this doesn’t happen again," she says.
British Prime Minister Theresa May has ordered a national investigation into the use of flammable cladding on high-rise towers across the country. Of the 120 samples that have been sent away to be tested, none have passed fire safety regulations.
There is anger that the investigation came too late. Three months before the blaze Grenfell residents told London fire brigade they feared for their safety because there were bare gas pipes outside their front doors. In a chilling blog penned in November 2016 the Grenfell Action group predicted it would take a serious loss of life from a serious fire before their landlords, KCTMO, addressed their dangerous living standards.
People didn’t need confirmation that there is a huge divide in how the rich are looked after and how the poor are looked after in Kensington and Chelsea. Britain’s wealthiest borough had rejected the use of flame-retardant cladding at an additional cost of £5,000 during the recent refurbishment of Grenfell Tower.
Meanwhile, Rasha – like hundreds of others whose lives have been affected by the tragedy – struggles to come to terms with the fate of her sister.
"Rania was an ordinary woman she did right things, wrong things like any of us, yet she had a heart of gold. She was a simple being, she was calm and friendly. Whenever she went to Egypt and found them [my brothers and sisters] arguing she always stopped them arguing and asked them to be nice to each other. She was a peaceful person.”
Published in Middle East Monitor