A Hollywood movie is to be made of a Leeds’ man’s attempts to smuggle a four-year-old Afghan refugee child out of the Calais Jungle.
Father Rob Lawrie, of Guiseley, made international news headlines when he was caught trying to smuggle young Bahar Ahmadi out of France to her family in Leeds.
The former carpet fitter, faced with a lengthy jail term and a hefty fine, walked free from a French court after thousands backed a petition calling for his release.
Now, a year after his life was knocked sideways by the storm he unwittingly created, he has opened up about the decisions he made.
And, as he hopes a movie about what happened can help others like Bahar, he says he would consider making the same choices again.
“I know what I did,” he said. “But I was trying to save a four- year-old girl. How can that be wrong?
“If I was trying to get drugs into the country, or thousands of cigarettes, I’d have been panicking. I wasn’t even scared.
“I knew that what I was doing was right. I was getting a little girl out of hell and home to her family. I felt I was doing the right thing.
“I failed her. I would rather that little girl was living with her family in Leeds, and nobody knew who I was.”Mr Lawrie, a carpet fitter from Guiseley, made a split-second decision to let an Afghan child hide in his van.
He had no idea where it would lead; to the loss of his wife, his job, and the fear of a future behind bars. To his face splashed across the front pages of every national newspaper. And it was a decision, he says, that he wouldn’t undo.
“I know what I did,” he said. “I hold my hands up, I’m guilty. And I’m sorry for my family, but I’m not sorry for the focus it brought to child refugees.
“And yes, I would consider doing it again. But I would still rather that little girl was living in a house in Leeds with her family than where she is right now.”
The former Army fitness instructor, a father of four, became famous almost overnight after his decision that day. A “crime of compassion”, as he calls it, was that he was caught trying to transport four-year-old Bahar Ahmadi, whom he calls Bru, from her desperate father in the refugee camps to her family in Leeds.
Now, nursing a tea in an Otley cafe, a million miles from the horrors of the Calais Jungle, he laughs wryly as he recounts a turbulent two years.
“Nothing surprises me now,” he said. “But I’ve never doubted myself. I knew, in my own heart, that I was doing the right thing.”
For Mr Lawrie, he had simply made a decision which others might not have.
“There’s a massive misconception that I rocked up in the jungle and chose a kid,” he says. “Bru’s a smart kid, streets ahead of others her age. She’s been getting trafficked since she was two years old. By that I mean hiding on the backs of wagons, trains, walking for miles. That bond between us was a very strong paternal bond.”
The 51-year-old had met Bru on a trip to Calais, taking goods donated from people in Leeds after the images surfaced of a young Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach.
He would often look after her for her father Reze, who would beg Mr Lawrie to take her to his sister in Leeds. It just wasn’t going to happen, he said.
But on October 24, after a day of building, Mr Lawrie and some of the families were sitting around a campfire, comparing stories from home.
“That night Bru, as she did every night, came and sat on my knee,” he said. “It was overcast and drizzly, but I remember it was the night of the Red Moon. It was cold. She squashed into me. She fell asleep. I looked down at her, she was so peaceful.
“I forgot about all the voices around us, they just faded away. I looked down and I just thought ‘stuff this’. I was going home that night. It was 10.30pm, and I was on the midnight ferry. I’d be in Leeds by 5am. I looked at her dad, who didn’t speak much English, and asked if I should take her. He just said yeah. He asked to borrow my pen and he wrote down an address. That was it. I didn’t know I had castaways.”
Earlier that day, two Eritrean men had hidden under some bags in his van. He was caught when the sniffer dogs caught their scent at the British border. Although police didn’t find Bru, he had to tell them as he was worried about her alone in the van. In the months that followed, he lost four stone. His marriage, of 14 years, fell apart. He was told to expect a sentence of five years in prison or a £20,000 fine.
On the day of his court appearance, he went in armed with a petition signed by 200,000 people and, with no work and no money, was wearing a £10 suit bought from an Otley charity.
“I was Marmite,” he said. “Some people thought I was a horror, others wanted to string me up. I had death threats. My worry was my children. I could survive.”
The hearing was like a West End Show, he said, with booing and cheers from the gallery and loud dramatic speeches he couldn’t understand a word of.
When it was adjourned, he hid in the bathrooms. And when it was announced that he would only have to pay a fine, to be waived completely if he commits no further offences, he openly wept.
“I just broke,” he said. “I went down. I thought I’d be leaving in handcuffs. I was classed as a smuggler.”
He was penniless. His business was gone, and his marriage was over. But he was allowed to go home. And a year on, he is positive about what the future holds. And he wouldn’t change what he did.
“I don’t recognise any law that says any child has to live like an animal,” he said. “I don’t recognise any law that tells me it’s illegal to help another human being, if that help comes from the heart.”
With the script for his story with Hollywood movie-makers, Mr Lawrie hopes to be able to make a difference to the lives of children like Bru.
“Hollywood wants a hero,” he said. “I just want the story of child refugees to be told. It should show the reality, and the hell, of being a child refugee.” He’s still in contact with Bru’s family, meeting them last month in Paris. They are still struggling, rootless, and he does what he can
“There’s always hope. I can only do what I can, so long as I’m doing something.”