Social Justice

Grenfell survivor Tiago Alves: 'We were all normal people living our normal lives'

How does anyone recover from the horror of a tragedy like Grenfell? Though Tiago Alves is still waiting for justice, he has found a way back to a path he’d thought forever lost

Tiago Alves, a survivor of the Grenfell Tower fire near Latimer Road,

Tiago Alves, a survivor of the Grenfell Tower fire near Latimer Road, London. Image: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo

Five years ago, just ahead of the first anniversary of the Grenfell Tower fire, Tiago Alves entrusted The Big Issue with his story. We met in a quiet cafe in Central London. And Alves, then 21, quietly detailed the devastating night the building he had lived in since he was nine months old burned down.  

Alves was at home on the 13th floor when the Grenfell Tower fire happened. Along with his neighbours, he was saved by his father’s insistence that they leave – despite the stay put policy that was in place.  

As part of Grenfell United, a group of survivors and bereaved people campaigning for justice, Alves attended the inquiry every day. And he kept coming back to one phrase: “the inquiry will get to the truth”. 

Now 26, Tiago Alves is still reliving the trauma of the fire. Sir Martin Moore Bick’s official inquiry is yet to produce the vital second part of its report – so any possible criminal proceedings are still on hold.  

Alves is one of the contributors whose stories are told in a new play, Grenfell: in the words of survivors, at the National Theatre. It is both a song of solidarity and a call to action.

Ahead of opening night, we spoke to Alves again – asking whether he still had faith in the official inquiry.  

Tiago Alves: We were certain this was going to be an extremely slow process. Take a look at Hillsborough – they are still on their campaign after more than 30 years. We also knew we had to have the inquiry first and only then could we start talking about the criminal justice system. I was a bit optimistic to begin with, then that began to dwindle. But when we got the Phase One report and saw Sir Martin Moore-Bick was going to be more hard-hitting, we started to believe there was a possibility [of justice]. 

Right now, there is nothing we can do but trust the process. So we will wait for the Phase Two report, see what it says, then afterwards our main goal will be criminal justice.  

Keaton Guimarães-Tolley plays Alves in the production. Image: Myah Jeffers

In our interview, we had asked how he felt when the National Theatre project was happening – as there has been some criticism over the sheer number of cultural takes on Grenfell.

TA: But it’s a great snapshot of what our thought processes were as bereaved and survivors at the time. It started when the media presence around the Grenfell fire was still quite big. I don’t think they had an idea in mind about what they wanted to do. But they wanted to interview survivors and tell their stories.  

I did like I usually do and answered the questions as honestly as I could. We were trying to preserve some of the memories we had. As time goes on, you begin to lose some of them.  

It’s important to paint a picture of what the community was like inside the tower. We were all normal people living our normal lives. By telling our story, hopefully we’re also inspiring people to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. 

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When we first spoke, Alves said he wanted Grenfell to be a turning point in history. He hoped it would be a moment of change, to a position in which building regulations were about the health and safety of people, rather than profits. Seeing the new play gives a powerful new understanding of the way in which residents of Grenfell were failed by people in power.  

TA: Our main push, initially, was a conversation about building regulations changing to make sure it never happens again. As time progressed, we realised it is so important to have tenants’ voices written into the Social Housing White Paper. It has been a very, very, very slow process. Too many ministers have had their hands on it. We’ve had a change of secretary of state and so many changes of housing ministers. Six years on, we are very close. But still very, very far away from actually getting it passed. 

Telling your story or reliving a traumatic event does not come without a cost. But Alves is keen to promote the idea that it is vital to talk about our feelings.  

TA: Some people deal with trauma by keeping it to themselves, or between themselves and their psychologist or counsellor. A lot of people don’t know it’s OK to ask for help.  

But I come from a generation of – I’m going to say young people, but I don’t necessarily feel young – who understand the importance of talking about your feelings. I always push this idea that it’s OK to not be OK, but you need to be able to express your feelings, positive or negative. Because it’s only through that process that you truly begin to heal. Being able to talk about it makes it easier. I’m not going say I’m 100% OK after the fire. But I’m in a much better place than I was a year after the fire. I am in a more secure place in my life. And that has only been possible because of the conversations I’ve had with friends, psychologists and family where I’m able to express these emotions.  

Alves had yet to be rehoused when we spoke previously. Now, thankfully, he is settled in a new place near to his old neighbourhood.  

TA: I spent a year and a half at the hotel. I tried to get temporary accommodation, but when I arrived there were massive leaks. So it was November or December 2018 when I got my new place. 

I live relatively nearby to the tower. I like being in the community and able to see my old friends and the people I’ve become friends with after the fire. It’s nice to still be around here, but understandable that some people don’t want to be sited near where they had a massive trauma. 

Alves initially attended the Grenfell Inquiry every day. As a scientist, he was keen to understand every aspect of the fire. But, looking back now, he says that this took a severe toll on his mental health.  

TA: Back then, I needed to be in the know. Because otherwise my mind would be spinning. But I have now been able to take a step back. The breakthrough moment was realising I don’t need to know everything about what’s going on. If I do, I’m just going to circle into a spiral of madness where that’s the only thing I ever do with my life. 

Part of the problem was trying to do too much. I got burnt out very quickly. And it wasn’t good for my mental health – I had a couple of pretty bad breakdowns. I felt like everything around me was crumbling. So it was about taking a step back and understanding my limits. 

Alves was planning to begin studying for a Masters in physics at King’s College in September 2018. This proved impossible with the inquiry and the ongoing trauma taking up so much of his headspace. But during the pandemic, he made a big decision.

We met again during the interval on the opening night of Grenfell: in the words of survivors. After an hour of hearing Alves’s words – from interviews conducted over the last five years – spoken by actor Keaton Guimarães-Tolley, there he is. And he’s doing well, seeming unfazed by the surreal situation as he shares a joke with co-director Phyllida Lloyd. He introduces me to his father and talks with excitement about his upcoming year at the world renowned scientific research centre at CERN.   

TA: Before the fire, I wanted to do a PhD. Then the fire happened and I ended up quitting academia altogether because it was getting too much. Then Covid happened. I was trying to look for a job and that didn’t work out. A friend suggested, since you’re not doing anything, apply to do a Masters. And I did. And I fell in love with physics again. I’m currently doing my PhD at Imperial.

So from October, I’ll be at CERN for a year, which is still very surreal to me. I remember being 15 year old and thinking that maybe one day I could work there. And now I actually am. It feels very strange, but it is really, really a dream come true.

Now I’m back on a path I wanted to be on before. Coming back to it and falling in love with the subject I’d fallen in love with years and years ago was a great feeling. Now I know exactly what I want to do with my life.  

Grenfell: in the words of survivors by Gillian Slovo is showing at the Dorfman Theatre, London until 26 August.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work buy a copy!

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