In Turkish, we say, “Ateş düştüğü yeri yakar”. This proverb, which translated means ‘an ember will burn where it falls’, is used to explain that only those who have endured a calamity can truly understand the deep and wretched misery that arises from it.
I thought of this phrase as I walked around East Ham Town Hall a few weeks ago, talking to bereaved families who were participating in The Table of Love and Loss, an event that aimed to celebrate the lives of people lost in tragic circumstances, while offering support to their relatives.
With each conversation, my heart broke at how these families came to lose their loved ones, most to a violent end. I was struck by the immense courage they had, speaking so candidly about the events resulting in these deaths and the impact on their lives.
Each family is at a different stage in their grief. Some are still seeking justice, others hoping to achieve changes to the law so that other families do not suffer in the way that they have done.
This unique event was organised by Ayşe Hussein, the cousin of Mihrican Mustafa, a 38-year-old mother-of three of Turkish Cypriot origin who went missing in May 2018.
Tragically, Mihrican, affectionately known as Canan or Jan, was found murdered not far from her home in Newham. Her body was discovered in the freezer of a flat of a man she knew, along with the body of another woman, Henriett Szucs, in April 2019.
The horrific circumstances of the deaths meant multiple forensic tests were needed, and it was not until January 2020 that the authorities released Jan’s body for burial. Within days of Jan’s funeral, the police charged the prime suspect, Zahid Younis, in whose flat the bodies were found. The trial commenced later that year, and Younis was found guilty of both murders and sentenced to 38 years in jail.
For Jan’s family, this intense sequence of events, coupled with the coronavirus pandemic, meant they could not properly grieve Jan or celebrate her life. While Jan’s brother and two sisters Mel and Zeynep spurn the massive media interest in their murdered sibling, for their cousin Ayşe it has been the opposite.
Ayşe wants to ensure every media reference about her cousin is made sensitively, that the memory of Jan goes beyond the narrative of a woman who was murdered by a prolific offender and psychopath, and that she is remembered as a much-loved daughter, sister, and mother who had everything to live for.
In her effort to make sense of the loss of her cousin, Ayşe has sought to offer support to other families of murder victims. She has attended vigils and protests, and met activists from women’s support groups in London. At each turn she saw how relatives were struggling to come to terms with the trauma of losing a loved one to murder. Together with the activists, Ayşe was able to formulate the concept for The Table of Love and Loss.
The event at East Ham Town Hall on Sunday, 4 December, brought together 23 families of people killed in tragic circumstances. Each family was given a space to remember their loved ones. They laid photographs and personal memorabilia on their tables, and some had details of legacy projects. They then bravely waited for dozens of strangers to pass by, patiently and tenderly recounting their personal stories to all who would listen.
It was a hugely moving and powerful experience for all concerned. It was an opportunity to offer comfort to those who may have felt increasingly forgotten and isolated in their grief and solidarity to those on a quest for justice.
For Janet, the mother of 28-year-old Leon Ulett, Sunday’s event was an important opportunity to remind the world that those responsible for her son’s death have yet to be apprehended.
Leon was found unresponsive in a street in Streatham on 1 April 2015 and he died a day later. The family believe the initial police investigation was flawed and they have received little support since. Seven years on, they are still no nearer to knowing why Leon was killed or by whom.
There are, on average, 100 murders a year in London. While most homicides are usually solved, around 10% of cases remain undetected. Due to finite resources, both the police investigation and media interest will inevitably fade, leaving families to struggle on their own.
For Janet and her relatives, the desire to bring Leon’s killer(s) to justice remains as strong as ever. Janet’s dignified manner and steely determination was inspiring. As she and her family spoke about the challenges they have faced since Leon’s death, it underlined how hard it is not only to lose a child in such a way, but to be also left with so many unanswered questions. How can a parent properly grieve under these circumstances, when their child’s killers are still at large?
Janet told me she wants to keep talking about Leon “to anyone who will listen”, and that prior to Sunday’s event, she and her family had felt “alone and forgotten about”. Her experience at the Table of Love and Loss has encouraged her to consider organising a similar event for bereaved families in South London, so they can “lift up” each other.
That message was echoed by Carole Gould, the mother of Ellie Gould, a 17-year-old who was stabbed to death by her ex-boyfriend in their family home in Wiltshire in May 2019.
Ellie’s mum is campaigning to change the law to end sentencing disparities for domestic homicide cases. Currently, the starting point for sentencing those who carry out a murder at home is 10 years less than those committed outside the home.
Carole told me it’s important for families to stand together on such matters, as it’s “harder for politicians to ignore us”, as they routinely do with individual cases. Since her daughter’s death she’s already had to deal with three different Justice Ministers.
Carole explained how her daughter’s killer, Thomas Griffiths, was given a life sentence with a minimum tariff of just 12.5 years, not only because he had killed Ellie at home, but also because he was four months shy of the age of 18 when he carried out the murder. As a result, when it came to sentencing the law regarded Griffiths as if he were a child.
It seems absurd that Griffiths is treated the same as a 10-year-old, when his actions were on a par with an adult killer. He carried out a brutal murder, first strangling and then stabbing Ellie 13 times in the neck, before going to great lengths to try to hide the crime. I was horrified that such a man could be out of prison by the time he was 30 years old.
Ellie Gould’s Table of Love and Loss was shared with the family of Poppy Devey-Waterhouse, a 24-year-old who was also murdered by her jealous ex-partner. The killer, 25-year-old Joe Atkinson, was given a minimum sentence of 15 years despite inflicting 49 stab wounds on Poppy in a ferocious attack at their shared flat in Leeds in December 2018.
The laws are clearly not fit for purpose if those carrying out such violent attacks against women can receive such light sentences, which is why we must ensure Carole’s campaign for reform succeeds.
Remembering those who have passed
There were tables of heart-felt tributes celebrating the lives of 23 people at The Table of Love and Loss. Some faces and names were well-known, due to the massive media attention their deaths have received, others less so, but each one represented a life that had been tragically cut short.
Poppy Devey Waterhouse
While it was not possible to speak to every family, it made me realise how important this day of direct conversations has been.
Any death is difficult for the bereaved, but to lose a loved one prematurely through an act of violence is far harder to come to terms with. The shock and often disturbing nature of such deaths will undoubtedly leave a massive scar, which is seldom considered let alone publicly discussed.
On my way to this event, I was not sure what I could say to people who have experienced such deep trauma, but it turns out that just listening is enough. We may never fully grasp the pain these families feel, but to show them we care, and that their loved one mattered – and so do they – is a simple yet vital form of emotional support.
The feedback from families
A week after the event had occurred, I asked Ayşe what feedback the bereaved families had given her. She told me, “The response has been so overwhelming and amazing. Families have contacted each other and are supporting each other already.”
“One father said walking up to the hall, he had felt sick, but once inside, after meeting and talking to people, he felt better and stronger. He said it was the right place for him, and that meant so much to me. Another said she felt she was surrounded by so many people who cared, and it was thanks to me. I got so emotional,” remarked Ayşe.
“The messages from families about how they felt before and after the event have left me speechless to be honest,” she continued.
“Many initially said they felt scared and nervous, but once they were inside, it all changed. We wanted to make them feel safe, comforted and loved – that was the purpose of the day.
“We are all grieving and bringing these families together was so special for me. Seeing pictures and videos of the tribute tables, and feeling the love in the room, the atmosphere. It felt like everyone knew each other already. That’s what made it a real success.”
“The Mayor of Newham announced that she wants this event to be yearly, which was a beautiful surprise. We will start planning it early next year,” Ayşe said, before adding emphatically: “We have become one large family and together we will fight for change. Jan’s legacy will make change.”
Politicians also attended The Table of Love and Loss, although many opted to stay in the background, like local MP Stephen Timms and Haringey Councillor Emine Ibrahim, whose powerful words at Jan’s funeral resonated strongly with the Turkish Cypriot women present.
One politician who did speak was MP Jess Phillips, a long-term campaigner on ending violence against women. She addressed the event by video link and pledged her support to the new Killed Women initiative.
The Mayor of Newham, Rokhsana Fiaz, announced that The Table of Love and Loss would become an annual event, while London’s Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime Sophie Linden, committed to improving the support the families of victims received, and called on them to hold her to account.
One of the most interesting contributions came from retired Senior Homicide Detective Simon Harding, who had been responsible for the investigations into a host of heinous crimes, including the murders of Jan Mustafa, Sarah Evering and sisters Bibaa Henry and Nicole Smallman.
Mr Harding spoke about the challenges police face investigating such crimes and the need to keep relatives fully informed at all times. He was open and honest about the failings in the system, including the standard cliched promise to families about “learning from their mistakes”, then doing the exact same wrong thing and failing another family the next time around.
Binding it all together was Meril Eshun-Parker, head of the London Black Women’s Project, who acted as host for the event and has supported Ayşe Husssein throughout her efforts to celebrate her cousin’s life and form a suitable legacy in her name. Her emotional words introducing the event set the tone for the speeches that followed.
Support groups and Jan’s Place
Alongside the high-profile speakers and tribute tables were a multitude of stalls by organisations involved in combatting violence against women and knife crime, and those offering refuge to women.
Among the organisations which were present were: Newham Council Safety Team and Police, London Black Women’s Project, True Honour, Samm, the Ashiana Network, Solace Women’s Aid, CGL, Magpie Project, Hestia, Protection Against Stalking, Aafda, Public Health Outreach, Imkaan, Refuge, and RUF (Resident United Forum).
One organisation, women’s charity Nia, announced at the event that they had recently opened a new refuge in London in Jan’s name and that Jan’s Place was already welcoming women in need. This news was one of the many rays of light that shone that day.
Perhaps the most unexpected beacon of hope that day came from a surprise talk from Jan’s 15-year-old daughter. The media were asked not to name or photograph her, which we duly obliged.
All of us present were captivated by this young girl’s courage to stand on a stage, a male friend offering moral support as he stood to one side, as she addressed hundreds of people about how, as an 11-year-old, she had to deal with her mother’s disappearance and brutal murder. She spoke about her memories of her mother, and the emotions she felt on being given the news of her death. She talked bluntly about her feelings of “missing out’ as she saw her friends share special moments with their mothers, and how empty and worthless that had made her feel.
Jan’s sisters, cousin, and nieces, all dressed in pink tops bearing photos of her mother, huddled a few feet below her in front of the stage, listening intently, as we all did. This raw and unfiltered testimony from someone so young was the clearest example that day of the lasting impact a murder has on those left behind.
Jan’s daughter wants to be a psychologist, so she can help others. By speaking out, she wanted to give a voice to those who are also struggling to process their parent’s murder.
She said, “don’t blame yourself”, and advised people to “Take your time [to heal] and if your room’s a mess, let it be a mess.”
For Jan’s big sisters Zeynep and Mel, who were initially so wary of this event, preferring to grieve in private, their niece’s brave talk was a deeply poignant moment.
There were big hugs afterwards and an acknowledgement that the day had indeed been an incredibly moving and beautiful tribute to Jan, one that was totally in keeping with her caring spirit.
The Swindon Sisters Alliance summed up on their Facebook page afterwards, what we all felt about The Table of Love and Loss event, held in memory of Jan Mustafa.
“It was an honour to be a part of something really emotional and special. We thank each and every one who shared a part of their loved one with us, their stories and the compassion towards families.
“To voice the pain, their struggles yet united together, promoting awareness and creating change.
Remembering all our loved ones in an individual and personal way.
“Not just a number, a statistic and another grave. Powerful in numbers. Not silenced. Standing up and shouting hear us! Can you see us?”