Tragic Rania with her two daughters (Image: PA)
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Munira Mahmoud, 37, was living in Grenfell Tower in London’s North Kensington with her family when the blaze claimed 72 lives, including that of Munira’s best friend Rania and her two children.
Munira, who has since collaborated on a cookbook with Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, now lives in west London with her husband Mohammed, 39, father-in-law Ahmed, 89, and three kids aged nine, five, and three months.
“It seems like a whole lifetime ago – not just four years – since I was living on the fifth floor of Grenfell Tower.
Back then, my days were spent looking after my son, then five, and daughter, then 18 months, as well as being a full-time carer for my father-in-law, who has dementia, while my husband Mohammed worked as a security guard at Heathrow Airport.
Ahmed, my father-in-law, had lived in the block for 40 years and knew everyone. It was a friendly community – neighbours popped in to give him his medication or food if I needed to go out.
I knew everyone on our floor, but my best friend Rania lived on the 23rd floor with her husband Hassan and their two children Fethia, four, and Hania, three. We were so close, she called me ‘Mum’.
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Munira Mahmud as she gave evidence during the Grenfell Tower Inquiry
With our husbands often working, we ate together most evenings, taking it in turns to cook. On 13 June 2017, I’d offered to make dinner so she could tidy her home before Hassan flew back to London from abroad the following week.
We fed the kids, chatting as they played, then Rania took them upstairs to bed. As we kissed and hugged goodbye I never dreamed that evening would be the last one I would spend with Rania and her children.
A few hours later, at 12.30am, I woke hearing Ahmed walking around. With his dementia, we worried he’d leave the flat. But I found him confused, staring out of the window.
People were shouting from outside, “Get out! Get out! Fire! Fire!” Flames were coming from the east side of the tower.
I woke up Mohammed panicking, “People are telling us to get out!” But he stayed calm. “We don’t need to evacuate – no one has told us to,” he assured me.
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Munira with two of her children
But, when I opened the front door, dark smoke was starting to build around the communal area and there were two fire fighters with masks on, one pulling a hose which didn’t seem to be working, while the other banged on doors telling people to leave.
“You’ve got two seconds to get out,” one ordered me. I realised how serious this was and rushed to the kids.
Still in their pyjamas, with no socks or shoes, I grabbed them and picked up the baby changing bag – which luckily contained our passports – and headed for the stairwell.
My husband shouted he would help Ahmed and follow us down. The smoke grew darker as we descended. Other residents I didn’t recognise hurried down looking scared.
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On the ground floor a woman was screaming at her mother, “Come outside!”
Leaving the tower I felt the intense heat, feeling so relieved as we stood by the green area. Thankfully, Mohammed – with Ahmed – found us quickly.
Our family was safe. For this I count my blessings every day.
At that point I never imagined the fire was going to completely destroy the entire building within 15 minutes. I was terrified by how fast it was spreading up the “decoration”. I didn’t know then it was called cladding. The smell of plastic was overpowering.
Grenfell Tower during the blaze
“Why have the firefighters let it spread so much?” I cried. It was then that I realised the fire was totally out of control.
I started panicking about Rania – how would she get the kids down by herself? I felt so helpless. I’d left my phone upstairs, but eventually got hold of her on a friend’s mobile. My heart sank – she was still in the tower.
“Thank God you’re alive,” she told me.
Rania was strong. She was trying to stay calm, but I could tell she was petrified. I think she knew she wasn’t going to make it out alive. She was coughing a lot so I didn’t want to keep her on the phone for too long. I heard the children coughing too, saying they wanted their daddy.
That was the last time we spoke. We didn’t sleep that night looking for her. Rania had posted on Facebook a video of herself saying a prayer, accepting she was going to die. That broke my heart.
The remains of the tower after the terrible tragedy
I went to the local mosque and found Rania’s husband, who’d returned to London by then and was crying. He lost everything that night.
The aftermath of the fire went in a blur of shock and grief. For 18 months we were put in a hotel, which wasn’t easy with children and Ahmed’s dementia. We were offered counselling but it wasn’t for me. I find cooking a better therapy – nurturing others – but I couldn’t do that in the hotel.
By August 2017, I was desperate to lift our moods, so I asked the mosque if I could use the kitchen to cook a meal for our wedding anniversary and also invited some friends and other survivors. We played music and it felt good being together.
The mosque then said we could use the kitchen twice a week. Initially, it was just me and my sister, then it grew and other women joined in. Using our own ingredients, along with some donated by families or charities, we offered free meals to those who wanted them. It was a welcome escape from the hotel.
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By January 2018, our kitchen was well established. The prime minister and Mayor of London had already visited when the mosque manager announced there was another VIP coming.
I’m not into celebrities, so when Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, was introduced I welcomed her, kissed her three times, and then whispered to my friend, “Who is she?”
The duchess was dressed casually in jeans and looked very, very beautiful. She was calm, down-to-earth and talked about her grandmother’s cooking. She tried one of our avocado dishes.
“Oh my God, what’s in there?’’ she asked. She loved it. She also asked my thoughts on doing a cookbook – I said that would be great.
The next day she sent over a home-baked banana loaf to thank us for having her. It was beautiful, but some of the friends I shared it with said they weren’t going to eat it but save it forever in the freezer!
Munira and a colleague meeting Meghan and Harry
After that initial meeting, we met again to talk about the recipes. I met Prince Harry too. They seemed very much in love, affectionate, caring and respectful to one another.
I think as an independent woman of colour she’s had a hard time here, but she is a good woman. She has been in touch since she moved to Los Angeles – she hasn’t forgotten us.
Thanks to Meghan, we got all the funding we needed for our book Together and the proceeds meant we could pay the rent and costs of providing 100 meals a week for two more years – feeding mums and babies, domestic abuse survivors and hardworking NHS staff. It’s been a safe space – somewhere to talk and eat for free.
It’s helped with the healing after the trauma.
I’m still haunted by the fire. One day, the fire alarm went off at the mosque and I froze. Someone had to drag me out. Just hearing a fire engine brings on deep panic. I still want justice for what happened and I want cladding removed from all buildings in the UK.
Things got better after we were re-homed and I had another baby three months ago. But I’ve also just been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, an autoimmune disease [that leads to varying degrees of skeletal muscle weakness].
Life is challenging, I still cry and I miss Rania every day. I don’t have many photos of her because my phone was lost in the fire. But I think of her when I cook and count my blessings. I was one of the lucky ones.” ■
Follow Munira Mahmoud on Instagram @muniraeats and also see kinamama.com