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Thursday, September 23, 2021

Two years on, no recourse for baby burned in Qatar villa fire

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Elizabeth Soffe's bedroom after the fire in 2014
Elizabeth Soffe’s bedroom after the fire in 2014

The family of a baby who suffered major injuries in a fire in 2014 is still fighting for compensation from their former Qatar landlord.

Irish expat Elizabeth Soffe was six months old when the AC unit above her crib erupted in flames while she napped, leaving her with severe burns.

A police report stated that the fire, which took place at a villa in the Beverly Hills 7 compound, had been caused by faulty wiring, Elizabeth Soffe’s father Liam told Doha News.

No one has been found liable for the fire, but the family said they have been waiting to receive pledged financial support from the villa’s owners, Al Asmakh Real Estate.

Elizabeth Soffe
Elizabeth Soffe, pictured before the fire in 2014. The family have decided not to share new photographs of her for privacy reasons.

Al Asmakh told Doha News recently that the Soffes, who are no longer in Qatar, must speak to the company’s insurance provider directly to receive the compensation.

The company added however that they are still prepared to assist the family “in any reasonable way.”

Home safety

The Soffes’ experience is a cautionary tale not only about home safety in Qatar, but also about the difficulties of seeking recourse in the event of a tragedy.

Home fires are common here due to faulty electrical wiring and poorly maintained air-conditioning units.

After the fire in May 2014, Elizabeth’s mother Sinead Soffe appealed to her fellow Qatar residents to do more to keep their families safe at home:

“We would hope that each and every one of you insist your landlords check your electrics and install more smoke alarms. We had one in every bedroom, but it happened too fast – but it could save a life,” she said.

And last year, a woman whose A/C caused serious damage to her home after catching fire, called on residents to get their units serviced regularly.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.
Photo for illustrative purposes only.

Other home fire prevention tips shared previously by the Ministry of Interior include:

  • Not running A/C units continuously, as the build-up of dust poses a serious hazard;
  • Not overloading electrical sockets and unplugging non-essential electrical equipment overnight;
  • Turning off kitchen extractor fans when you don’t need them; and
  • Making sure all gas cylinders are closed off tightly, and stored away from direct sunlight.

It’s also good practice to test the batteries in your smoke alarms regularly, and to clean the filters in your A/C units on a frequent basis.

A different life

Now aged two and a half, Elizabeth Soffe lives with her parents and siblings in Birmingham in the UK.

The family relocated there so that she could be near the city’s specialist burns unit for children, where she undergoes regular operations and physical therapy.

20140527_104909
Elizabeth Soffe, pictured before the fire in 2014.

Her father Liam Soffe told Doha News that personality-wise, Elizabeth is a “normal, happy, determined toddler” who likes playing on the swings and slides, and annoys her siblings by pulling their hair.

Her injuries, however, mean that she looks very different than other children.

“The hardest thing is the reactions from people. She will never be able to walk into a room and have nobody stare at her,” he said.

Elizabeth has lost all of the fingers on her right hand, and only has the use of her thumb and half of her middle finger on her left hand.

She also lost her left ear after the fire, all of her hair except for one small remaining patch, and a large part of her nose.

“She’s severely scarred over 60 percent of her body, and even the bits that weren’t burned, they used for skin grafts,” her father said.

Recovery

These skin grafts are itchy and often keep her awake at night, and she also has to wear splints on her arms to stretch them out while she sleeps, he added.

The family said they have had to have a special car seat made for her, and are currently trying to find someone who can build her an adapted bike so she can cycle with her siblings.

Elizabeth Soffe with her mother and sister in 2014, before the fire
Elizabeth Soffe with her mother and sister in 2014, before the fire.

Liam Soffe told Doha News that these pieces of equipment were only the beginning of a long list of expensive items and services Elizabeth is likely to need during her life:

“When she’s at school, she may need help holding a pencil, and when she’s older she may need an adapted car. She also needs specialist physical and occupational therapy.

And then there are cosmetic operations she may need that the NHS (the UK’s health service) may not fund, like having her nose reconstructed or a prosthetic ear attached.”

Financial promises

Toward the end of 2014, the Soffe family said they were promised “financial assistance” by Al Asmakh, along with assurances that the company would help fund the specialist care Elizabeth would need for the rest of her life.

They were instructed to claim the money from Al Asmakh’s insurance company. But doing so while not living in Qatar has proved difficult.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.
Photo for illustrative purposes only.

This is in part because the insurance company has asked the family to obtain a medical report assessing Elizabeth’s needs. But since the baby cannot travel, Liam Soffe said he is still waiting to see if a UK medical report is acceptable.

Lacking responses from the insurance company, and unable to attend meetings in person in Qatar, the Soffes have also tried but failed to reach Qatar’s embassy in London and its foreign affairs ministry by letter.

Family friends have also been attempting to make contact with Al Asmakh and the insurance company in Qatar on the Soffes’ behalf, but have had no success.

Al Asmakh’s response

In a statement to Doha News last wek, Al Asmakh’s legal advisor Hamzeh Fuad said the company’s president Ibrahim Al Asmakh was “deeply saddened and perturbed” when he had first heard of Elizabeth’s injuries and that he “continued to be concerned for her well being.”

Fuad confirmed that all of the company’s properties are covered by an insurance policy that provides for compensation of up to QR5 million per insured event.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.
Photo for illustrative purposes only.

However, he added that it was the family’s responsibility to pursue their claim directly with the insurance company:

“We need to emphasize that it is not Mr. Al Asmakh’s or the Group’s responsibility to personally follow the progress of the actual insurance claim or claims filed by the beneficiaries of insurance policies as the case of the members of the Soffe Family.”

It is purely a direct relationship between the beneficiary (Soffe Family) and the Insurance Company.”

Fuad added that the company had spoken to the insurance firm about the claim after hearing from Liam Soffe.

He said that insurance providers had told Al Asmakh that the Soffe family had not submitted the medical and police reports requested to process the claim.

Elizabeth Soffe's crib
Elizabeth Soffe’s crib

In response, Liam Soffe said that Al Asmakh’s position was “disappointing but not surprising.”

“Elizabeth will spend her whole life dealing with the result of the faulty wiring in a villa owned by Al Asmakh and they say they are deeply saddened but ultimately not providing any assistance to her,” he said.

Legal avenues

With negotiations stalled, the Soffes are now considering taking legal action. Their case would be based on correspondence documenting a series of electrical faults in their villa prior to the fire, Liam Soffe said.

“It (the legal route) will be long and traumatic for us, but we have to do everything we possibly can for Elizabeth. We need to tell her when she’s older that we did everything we could.”

Soffe declined to say how much money the family thinks Elizabeth will need to pay for future care and equipment.

Photo for illustrative purposes only.
Photo for illustrative purposes only.

“It’s very difficult to predict a figure for someone’s life – we just want to get in a position where we are talking about a figure,” he said.

He added that the family will consider seeking out specialist burns care centers in the US and France if they receive extra funds.

A generous community

In the immediate aftermath of the fire at the Soffe’s villa, the expat community in Qatar rallied to raise funds for the family.

Friends in Qatar held a charity fundraising night and also donated to an online charitable fund, which has raised more than £64,000 (QR310,700) to date.

The family used some of this money to help fund organizations that have helped them in the past two years, Liam Soffe said:

“As well as using this money to help Elizabeth, we also made a donation from these funds to the Birmingham Children’s Hospital, to the Ambulance Service which transferred her from London and to the charity which ran the accommodation we stayed in near the hospital.”

“It’s been great to be able to give back.”

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