Friday 19 July 2019

'Five years on, we've no justice in sight for Elizabeth' - Irish father of baby seriously burned in Qatar

The Soffes took a civil case in Qatar that is still making its way through the courts after failing to receive any compensation from insurance plans

Liam and Sinead Soffe
Liam and Sinead Soffe

Niamh Lynch

An Irish father whose baby daughter was seriously burned after a faulty air conditioning unit went on fire in Qatar has spoken of his unending quest for justice.

Liam Soffe, father of Elizabeth, now five years old, said of the family’s angst: "It’s been unbelievably emotionally draining to deal with it, day in and day out.

"It’s been five years, every single day, tiny steps forward. We want closure, we want to move on with our lives."

Liam, a civil engineer originally from Dublin, moved to Qatar in 2011 with his wife Sinead and their four children, Daniel, Amelia, William and baby Elizabeth.

Sinead worked as a school nurse during their stay there, while Liam built roads in preparation for the country hosting the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

"It’s a pretty insane place to live," Liam told Independent.ie.

Liam and Sinead Soffe
Liam and Sinead Soffe

"We had built a life there, Elizabeth and William were born there. It was the expat life. It particularly exposed the children to people from all over the world.

"The work was difficult, long hours, but we enjoyed the lifestyle - working towards something, seeing a different part of the world. "

In May 2014, Elizabeth, who was six months old at the time, suffered 60pc full thickness burns after an incorrectly wired air conditioning unit went on fire while she was sleeping.

After doctors in Doha told the Soffes they could not treat Elizabeth there, the family subsequently moved to Birmingham five days after the fire to be close to the city’s Children’s Hospital, which contained both a burns unit and paediatric intensive care unit.

The Soffe children
The Soffe children

The Soffes took a civil case in Qatar that is still making its way through the courts after failing to receive any compensation from insurance plans.

Liam has heavily criticised the Department of Foreign Affairs’ handling of the case: "We’ve asked the department to ask the Qatari authorities to investigate.

"We met with Foreign Affairs Minister and Tanaiste Simon Coveney.

"He said it would be given high priority, that he had a personal interest, and he wrote a letter to the (Qatari) foreign ministry resulting in the investigation. But the result of that investigation said the incident was an ‘act of God’.

"We wrote and wrote and wrote to Charlie Flanagan but he never met us.

"The department don’t push it enough. They’re happy to write a letter but not take it further. They keep on pushing us away. In our view, the department doesn’t try any harder. Writing letters, to us, isn’t enough.

Elizabeth's bed after the fire
Elizabeth's bed after the fire

"We asked for another meeting with the Minister but we’re not getting anywhere. We want to impress on him that if this is high priority, he needs to do more.

"The Taoiseach could pick to the phone to the Emir (head of state of Qatar) and ask why something was not done civilly or by the police or ask for more information on the investigation. I’ve seen cases of Irish people abroad that have been sorted this way."

Liam continued: "Connected to that, we don’t feel a full investigation was completed by the Civil Defence [in Qatar]. The cause of the fire was clear but no further investigation was done by police into maintenance or there were no interviews with owners.

"We’ve spent years trying to contact to engage [with the owners of the property]."

The investigation into the incident found that it occurred due to an "act of God" and, according to the Soffes, was already closed the day they left Qatar.

"Two things frustrate us the most," Liam continued.

"We had piles of insurance. We had medical evacuation insurance but they couldn’t get us a plane or find a bed. We had medical insurance for Elizabeth but they wouldn’t cover it as she wasn’t treated in the Middle East or our home country. We felt abandoned.

"When we moved, we checked that the property was insured. The owner had insurance but then the insurance company said that the owner didn’t maintain the property."

Liam is optimistic about Elizabeth’s future prognosis, but worries about affording the necessary treatment.

"She will need reconstruction surgery with her hands, to lengthen her fingers, and create a web between them. There’s quite a lot of reconstruction surgery - a prosthetic ear, facial reconstruction, most of the nose is missing and needs to be worked on.

"There’s also ongoing physiotherapy and scar management. Medical insurance can pay for increased daily physiotherapy.

"[The medical insurance payment] would get an adapted car, she probably will need an adapted car. She’s learning to write at the moment but she gets tired quite easily. She can use a knife and fork, but again she gets tired.

"And these are only the physical things, there’s the psychological impact that needs to be dealt with as well.

She’s very independent, she constantly refuses help to do something," the proud father continued.

"I have no doubt that she’ll live independently. It’s our job as parents to give her all opportunities to have a full and productive life. Resilience is in her personality."

Liam also praised his older children's "resilience" to the disaster: "They lost everything, all the kids’ stuff was gone. We moved to Birmingham with a single plastic bag of clothes.

"It was a massive lifestyle change. When we decided to settle in Birmingham, on the first day we rented a house.

"Elizabeth was in a coma for the first few months so when she was a bit more awake, when we were able to hold her, we brought them over [from Ireland, where they were staying with family members]. It was quite a shock for them."

Elizabeth’s brother Daniel has fundraised over £1,000 to redecorate the 'adolescent room' in Birmingham Children’s Hospital.

"Danny said he always wanted to do something to help. He wanted to do it (the adolescent room) up, decorate it, get nice pictures, a better tv. He ran a few races, at only nine or 10, made a bit of money and it’s been done," Liam said.

A spokesperson for the Department of Foreign Affairs told Independent.ie: "It is the policy of the Department not to comment on details of consular cases."

The owners of the Qatar property did not respond to Independent.ie at the time of publication.

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