For Child Survivors of London Fire, a Belated Eid Celebration
LONDON — Few things are more quintessentially British than a funfair for children. And nothing conveys the British slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On” like staging one for children rendered homeless after an inferno that killed at least 80 people.
The local mosque near Grenfell Tower, the 24-story West London apartment building that was destroyed by fire on June 14, held a delayed Eid al-Fitr celebration on Saturday for survivors and their neighbors — and most of all, their children.
It featured a bouncy castle, face-painting tables, a playpen full of colorful balls and helium balloons on long strings, all funfair staples. Copious free food included not only chicken biryani and samosas, but also cookies and chocolate cupcakes. There was an old-fashioned popcorn popper and a vat to spin pink cotton candy — candy floss, the British call it. Even the sun made an unscheduled appearance.
That befitted what was a determinedly upbeat occasion. “These kids need something normal, just a chance to relax and have fun,” said Abdurahman Sayed, the executive director of Al Manaar Muslim Cultural Heritage Centre, which also houses the mosque.
Still, officials thought long and hard about whether to hold the event so soon, Mr. Sayed said. He was a little worried that the parents would stay away, only two weeks after the tragedy, with local and national governments still being battered nearly daily by public fury, revelations about lapses that made the tower vulnerable to fire and serial resignations of public officials. But the decision proved popular, and fairgoers of all ages filled the center and the blocked-off street outside.
With most of the Grenfell Tower survivors rehoused, for now, in hotel rooms, it was a welcome chance for them to take their children out somewhere and also see their friends and neighbors, Mr. Sayed said. “It’ll be good for the parents, too,” he said.
Ahmed Palekar, who had many friends in the tower, came to watch. “This is our way of talking about something else other than the fire,” he said. “But behind each smile is a troubled recent past.”
Amina al-Wahadi attended with her children and her sister, who escaped from a lower floor of the tower with her husband and two children. The sisters then watched as the flames engulfed the 21st floor, where their brother and his family lived; all five perished. The sisters were angry about how they had been treated by the authorities — “lie after lie after lie,” as Ms. Wahadi put it.
But this day was for the children, who dived into the bouncy castle, or inflatable bouncer; played at sword-fighting with modeling balloons (as twisting balloons are known here); or had their faces painstakingly painted by volunteers, mostly schoolteachers, with several children lined up before each of them waiting their turns patiently. Spider-Man, predictably, was a big hit.
“We can’t begin to understand what they’ve gone through,” said Farita Latif, one of the face painters. “I just lost my friend in the tower and I was crying for a week. Imagine losing a family?”
Another of the teachers was doing henna tattoos, popular with adult women in hijabs, as well as schoolgirls in Western dress. “I met a girl today,” the teacher said. “I did her henna. She lost five of her friends. She was in Year 7.” That is equivalent to American sixth grade.
Most schools are still in session in England. At one local nursery, 11 Grenfell children are absent; at an elementary school, five are, parents said. They are probably among the missing, now presumed dead. In many cases, no parents have called to report absences, probably because they are missing or dead, too.
Al Manaar Mosque caters to a variety of Muslims originally from many different countries. That was the case too with the mostly Muslim population of Grenfell Tower. Among the adults attending the Eid funfair, their appearance reflected their Islamic diversity, from full hijabs and long chin beards to modern Western dress and everything between. The youngsters, though, could mostly have come from any public playground in the country.
For many Muslims, Eid celebrations, held June 25 to 27 this year, include giving presents to children. That did not happen for the Grenfell Tower families; for their children, it was like a canceled Christmas. The center has since been inundated with gifts for children, and several rooms on its top floor look like part of a chaotically well-stocked toy store. There was enough for all of the children to get something, but the young survivors of the fire were ushered by volunteers in maroon vests into a “special room,” where the nicest toys had been gathered.
Counselors were on hand as well. On a table was a pile of “Easy Read” brochures from the National Health Service in West London, titled “Supporting Children After a Traumatic Event.” Among the recommendations: “Keep to your normal daily activities as much as you can.”
Out in the street, two young boys took up positions on a circular mat for sumo wrestling. They had donned padded fat suits that rendered both of them harmless as they belly-knocked each other down, to great laughter all around.
There was also a science exhibition on one sidewalk table. A girl who looked 11 or 12 was learning about non-Newtonian fluids. She squeezed a handful of cornstarch — cornflour, it is called here — mixed with water into a squishy ball in the palm of her hand.
“It’s like slime,” she said, referring to another type of non-Newtonian fluid. She spoke with wonder, but softly. On her inner left wrist was a small henna tattoo that read “14.06.17,” a silent reference to that day in June.