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Reaching Grenfell Survivors

It’s a sad reality that society’s most vulnerable groups tend to be the worst affected when disaster strikes.

So when the Grenfell Tower fire happened, one of the things foremost on people’s minds was “How can we help?”. I’ve been volunteering as a support worker for the humanitarian medical charity Doctors of the World since March. A volunteer-led movement of doctors, nurses, and advocates, runs clinics in 80 countries across the world, including the UK, for people without access to mainstream healthcare. And since the fire, we’ve set up a temporary clinic in the North Kensington Law Centre so that survivors are able to access healthcare, regardless of their immigration status.

The clinic was set up in response to reports that many undocumented migrants and asylum seekers who lived in the tower were not going to hospital, even those with serious injuries, because they feared being traced by immigration officers. Home Office immigration teams regularly access NHS patients’ records to obtain patient’s private details, such as home addresses to track down undocumented migrants.

My task as a volunteer was to get out into the community and spread the word about our clinic. With another volunteer I headed to Westway Community Centre, where the response effort was being coordinated. Walking in, we saw an abundance of services stalls set up and a frenzied atmosphere more reminiscent of an international development operation in a foreign country than a sports hall in London’s richest borough.

Image credit HuffPost UK

We spent the morning speaking with volunteers from the other organisations to find out if they had come across survivors who were struggling to get the healthcare because of their immigration status. One nurse said she’d met with a family housed on the top floor of a hotel without air conditioning that were being ‘re-traumatised all over again’. Another spoke of a wheelchair user who’d been confined to a small inaccessible room on a high storey. There was a sense of solidarity between the different outreach workers, and everyone was supportive of our work to help the communities they might not be reaching. Thanks to their help, we managed to secure a list of thirty- five hotels housing ex Grenfell residents.

In the afternoon, I set off to visit the different hotels and was well received by most. Throughout my interactions it was important to be sensitive and discreet: many survivors were clearly overwhelmed, and there was a palpable sense of frustration, fatigue and mistrust in the community. Confidentially, some hotels were able to give me a clearer picture of the health of some of their guests: one concierge said his hotel had made three ambulance calls for victims of the fire due to panic attacks, self-harm and the late effects of smoke inhalation. He expressed the need for in-house mental health support for both victims and attending staff.

As the day progressed, my visits to the hotels proved fruitful and appeared to confirm the existence of a population not accessing healthcare. By virtue of wearing my Doctors of the World uniform, one man with a bad knee approached me for medical help having fallen down the stairs leaving the tower, and another woman asked if I might be able to source crutches for her son, who was still waiting on a visit from the district nurse. I gave both details for our clinic and advised them of their right to NHS care.

By the end of the day, I’d walked fourteen kilometres and had got to just 9 hotels out of 35.

There was still much more ground to cover, and more informal networks to tap into. If we got through to just one survivor in need of healthcare it would be worth it. The words of my clinic manager echoed true:

‘Effective outreach is often slow, unglamorous and more of a marathon than a sprint’.

Working as a foot soldier for the day left me reflecting on the worrisome intersection between immigration, poverty, and health, and wondering how many others navigate life’s tragedies when there’s often little, if any, provisions made available to help. Through my work with the often-ignored populations DOTW caters to: sex workers, refugees, victims of human trafficking and undocumented migrants, I’ve come to appreciate how privilege operates, and the life-saving importance of the voluntary sector in reaching the people who fall between the gaps.

Thanks to Koreo for their generous donation towards Doctors of the World’s outreach, and for allowing me the platform to share my story. You can find out more about DOTW work in the UK and around the world here.

Words: Emma Howard, Charityworks Trainee at Royal College of Physicians

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