Child survivor of an Isis suicide bomber in Beirut faces court fight to join UK family
Haidar Mustapha has become a cause celebre in Lebanon, but the Home Office has still blocked his entry to Britain. ain. James Tapperer reports
Everyone agrees – even the Home Office – that Haidar Mustapha was the victim of a horrifying tragedy. The boy, then three, had been visiting cousins with his parents in Beirut on 12 November 2015 when a suicide bomber, claimed later by Islamic State, pulled up on a motorbike next to their SUV. The attacker had intended to blow up his bike first, then detonate his explosive vest after a crowd had gathered. Instead something went wrong. The bike exploded as he was getting off, shredding the family’s car.
Haidar’s mother, Leila Taleb, and father, Hussein Mustapha, died instantly, two of the 43 people killed in Lebanon’s worst terrorist attack since its civil war in the 1980s. But Haidar escaped with minor cuts and burns because he had been sitting in his mother’s lap. Her body shielded him from the blast. A bystander saw the boy moving in the wreckage and picked him up to take him to hospital when the second bomb exploded. Haidar was saved from the shrapnel by his rescuer’s body.
“One of the doctors said the way he survived is a miracle,” Haidar’s uncle, Mohammad Mustapha, said. “He was in front sitting in her lap and she protected him from the explosion. They found Haidar between her feet.”
Mustapha is Haidar’s legal guardian, but has never lived with his nephew, who will turn five next month. For nearly a year he has been fighting th e Home Office to allow Haidar into the UK, even enlisting the support of Cristiano Ronaldo, the Real Madrid footballer.
Tomorrow the battle reaches the British courts, with an appeal at the first-tier immigration tribunal against the Home Office’s refusal to grant Haidar leave to remain. Mustapha and his legal team at Cromwell Wilkes are anxious but confident. “I will keep working on it,” Mustapha said. “I believe in England. I know we will get justice. Beirut is a bad place, where Haidar is. I don’t want to lose him to guns or something worse. He is being exploited.”
Mustapha, 47, has lived in Britain since 1991 and works as a chef in central London. He and his wife, Layal, have three sons: Haidar, 11, Hussein, 10, and Mahdi, who was born three weeks before his cousin.
News of the bomb attack in Burj alBarajneh, a southern suburb of Beirut, reached Mustapha as he was watching television with a friend. “They said there was an explosion in Burj al-Barajneh and then I saw my brother’s car,” Mustapha said. “I called my brother straight away, but the phone was ringing and no answer.”
Mustapha’s parents, who lived in the same apartment block as Haidar’s family, quickly established that the child was in hospital, but there was no news of his parents. Mustapha flew out to Beirut the next day. He discovered scenes of chaos. “There were hundreds of people queueing up at the hospital to meet Haidar,” he said. “It was very bad. I found everyone was talking on TV on behalf of Haidar. They said they were his cousin, his uncle, but who were they? They were exploiting him.”
A Lebanese TV journalist had walked into hospital and found Haidar. He interviewed the child, who had one eye covered in a patch, and it was clear the boy didn’t realise his parents were dead. “He thought they were still in the car,” Mustapha said. “He didn’t understand what had happened.”
Haidar was interviewed again and again, dressed in his favourite Real Madrid shirt – his father was a huge fan. The publicity led to the queues of hospital visitors, desperate to shake the boy’s hand and take his picture. A social media campaign was launched to persuade the football club to bring Haidar to Madrid. A month later the boy had flown to Spain to meet Ronaldo. Videos of a tearful Haidar with the player went viral.
“He was in everybody’s hands,” Mustapha said. “He doesn’t know where he is going or what is happening. But when I arrived and said, ‘I am his uncle’, everybody stopped.”
Lebanon’s family law is markedly different to the UK’s. Issues of custody and family matters are reserved for the sharia courts. The male head of the family takes precedence, so Haidar automatically came into the custody of his grandfather, Salman. But the 86-yearold finds it difficult to walk and is in no condition to look after a small boy. He decided to hand over responsibility to Mustapha. There is no formal adoption procedure in Lebanon as the concept is not recognised in sharia law. Mustapha was awardedwarded forp formal guardianship of Haidar at the Jaafari tribunal bunal in Baabda last year.
This January ua r y, , Mustapha applied lied to bring Haidar r to live with him in Lonerned London, still concerned about the child attracttention. attracting unwanted attention. He believes picturesures and videos of Haidar ar were being sold to mediadia outy outlets in Lebanon by family members. Haidar ar was filmed watching a video of Ronaldo taking part in a penalty shootout and he featured in a Mother’s Day TV special without Mustapha’s knowledge.
But, in February, Mustapha’s hopes for Haidar to join his son at school were dashed. The Home Office said it did not believe coming here would be in Haidar’s best interests.
“I acknowledge the traumatic events that have led to this application,” an official wrote. But the application was refused on the grounds that Haidar had not been adopted because no Lebanese civil court had ruled on the matter; that Mustapha’s receipt of housing benefit showed he was unable to support another child; that their London flat in Marylebone was not suitable; and that they had “not demonstrated ongoing significant intrusion” by others into Haidar’s personal life.
Mustapha’s barrister, Richard Roberts, described it as a “belt and braces” rejection. “None of those issues matter,” he said. “The refusal has refused applications that weren’t made. The ultimate test is whether ‘there are serious and compelling family or other considerations that make the child’s exclusion undesirable’.”
He believes the system for dealing with cases such as Haidar’s is flawed and should involve local authorities in the UK, rather than a single Home Office official. “It is difficult for entry clearance officers to make an assessment this massive. It probably is a matter for a judge,” said Roberts.
To Mustapha, it’s clear that Haidar’s best interests mean living in England. “My parents are not able to look after him. They are too old. We go over as much as we can, my whole family. We spent weeks there with him and he and Mahdi are like brothers. I am worried about him. Where they live, it is not a good place.”
There are no other suitable relatives, Mustapha says. Haidar cannot live with his aunts’ families because of religious issues.
“He will be a young man in a house with women who are not his family,” said Mustapha.
“When he is older, they cannot be in the same room together. Haidar will be the one that suffers. All of my sons see Haidar as his brother. We want to give him a future.”
Haidar with his parents, Hussein Mustapha and Leila Taleb, who died in a terrorist attack in Beirut in 2015.
Cristiano Ronaldo was called in to help; Haidar’saidar’s father was a Real Madrid fan.