Relatives of dozens of the 72 victims of the Grenfell Tower fire and the residents’ group representing the west London estate where the disaster took place are boycotting a government scheme to create a memorial, saying they have been sidelined.
Ministers announced a memorial commission in 2018 to decide “the most fitting and appropriate way to remember” the victims of the blaze, which happened on 14 June 2017. However, the Grenfell Next of Kin support group, representing the immediate family members of 30 people who died, and the local Lancaster West residents association have said they have no confidence in the process and believe they are being systemically marginalised.
Hisam Choucair, who lost six members of his family in the fire, said the Grenfell Tower memorial commission had been intended to commemorate victims, but that their closest relatives had been “whitewashed” from the project.
He told the Observer: “Our voices, which should have been given the greatest weight, are being robbed by this process. They’re trying to take control of our memorial.”
Flora Neda, who with her son was one of only two survivors from the top floor of the tower, has told other bereaved families that the commission should commemorate 71 instead of 72 victims. She does not want her husband, Saber, who died in the fire, remembered by a process she feels has ignored her. “Instead of bringing closure and healing, this process is adding more grief and anxiety,” she said. “All they had to do was talk to the next of kin.”
The 57-year-old added: “Without the loss of life there would be no memorial planned, and all these people [are] getting jobs and contracts and pushing us out the way so they can do whatever they want. Not in our names. At least, not in my husband’s name.”
Paulos Tekle, who lost his five-year-old son, Isaac Paulos, said commemorating the dead was a profoundly personal process.
“Isaac’s younger brother survived, and when he asks me, what did I do to commemorate his brother, I have to be able to look him in the eye and say: ‘I did everything I could to make them [the government] listen.’”
In January, the Grenfell support group formally requested to meet Boris Johnson to discuss their hopes for the memorial, but he did not respond.
The group also accused the housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, of a failure to engage. His department, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), is coordinating the memorial commission. At the start of the year, residents – many of whom see the hulk of the burnt-out tower daily – invited Jenrick on a tour of the Lancaster West estate. They received no response.
Although the memorial commission champions “open and inclusive decision-making”, the Next of Kin group say they do not know the identities of “community representatives” who attend the meetings to make decisions.
Minutes of the commission meetings, they claim, are insubstantial, and they have not been permitted to attend as observers.
David O’Connell, vice-chair of the Lancaster West residents’ association, said: “Why so much secrecy? We don’t know what is being discussed, or by whom. They’ve just ignored the estate, but we have had to live with this for three years. So who is the ‘community’? Because this is on our doorstep.”
Families whose immediate relatives died in the fire are also concerned by the government’s appointment of community engagement consultancy Kaizen Partnership to collate “thoughts, hopes and concerns about the tower and the future memorial”.
The Next of Kin group are furious that Kaizen has not requested a meeting with them and have also questioned the firm’s independence, because it has previously worked with the London Fire Brigade.
Last week London’s fire commissioner, Andy Roe, admitted the capital’s fire brigade had let down the residents of Grenfell.
Choucair, who lost his mother, sister, brother-in-law and three nieces in the blaze, is also anxious that the memorial process could produce a corporate symbol that is rejected by the relatives. “It’s not like building a theme park. You’re dealing with a deeply personal space that is important to the process of closure, to healing,” he said.
In a recent statement the government said it wanted the memorial commission to engage with the bereaved family members, survivors and the “north Kensington community”. It added: “The community’s views, concerns and preferences are an important part of the evidence that will inform the government’s future decision-making.”
However, Choucair is among those who believe the term “community” is too vague; he is worried his wishes will be lost amid those of large numbers of residents. “If this is meant to be our memorial, treat us with dignity and talk to us with respect in a way that we want to engage about something so personal and important. If the intention was to be empathetic, they should have just come directly to us,” he said.
Ideally the group hopes that the wishes of all the immediate relatives of those who died in Grenfell Tower are included in the final memorial.
Choucair added: “Everybody’s needs have to be met, but the current process is adding to the grief, my stress.”
The support group now intends to approach the prime minister again to discuss a way forward for the national memorial.
“My days are now to go to the cemetery, shed tears and clean my husband’s grave,” says Neda. “Other than bringing me this grief, they’ve done nothing to bring us healing. It’s brutal.”
An MHCLG spokesperson said: “The commission will ensure the voices, views and wishes of the bereaved carry the most weight.
“It’s vital that the lives of those who died in the Grenfell tragedy are remembered and the independent Grenfell Tower Memorial Commission is working with the community to agree on the most fitting and appropriate way to do this.”
“The department funds and supports the work of the Commission, which is rightly entirely community-led to ensure the bereaved, survivors and North Kensington residents are at the heart of, and lead on, decision-making for a memorial on the Grenfell Tower site.”
Kaizen was also contacted for comment.