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

The Observer - - NEWS -

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.

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