Aid worker Rob Lawrie was arrested for trying to illegally smuggle a four-year-old Afghan girl into Britain. He tells Grant Woodward why he would do it again.
ROB Lawrie sets down his mug of tea and points to the fireplace. “I lay down in front of there, put Classic FM on the telly and locked all the doors,” he tells me quietly.
Then he used what he thought was enough red wine and painkillers to send him to sleep. “I made sure I did my research, because I was just at the end really.”
We are sitting in the living room of his rented home in Guiseley. He is only here at all because a friend peeping through the curtains noticed the 50-year-old lying prone on the carpet and called for an ambulance.
“The funny thing is she could only see me because of that dreamcatcher my daughter Ruby made,” says the father-of-four, smiling weakly as he looks up at the curtain pole where the ornament hangs. “It leaves a little triangle gap at the top of the curtains and Tracey managed to see through it by standing on the wheelie bin.”
At the time Lawrie was waiting for a court to decide if he should be jailed for aiding illegal immigration in the wake of an act that has divided opinion around the world, seeing him lauded and loathed in almost equal measure.
His spur-of-the-moment decision to smuggle a four-year-old Afghan girl, Bahar Ahmadi, into Britain saw his marriage crumble and left him at risk of losing his home. The former soldier was told he could face a sentence of five years in prison or a £20,000 fine. It was the lowest point in a life of peaks and troughs – an astonishing back story which goes some way to explaining why he did what he did.
The second youngest child in a family of seven, Lawrie’s only memories up to the age of six are of violence. His father, an academic, was a popular figure, except to those who knew what he was capable of behind closed doors. Eventually Lawrie was taken into care, spending the rest of his childhood in a children’s home. “After that,” he notes, “nothing really surprises you.”
At 17, he joined the Army, serving with the Royal Corps of Transport in Northern Ireland and Bosnia. Upon leaving he had a stint as a lorry driver before applying to university, inspired by motivational tapes sent to him by his brother, a preacher in America.
After that he set up a courier service which grew from one van into a flourishing business. Then disaster struck. He was diagnosed with bacterial meningitis, his first marriage collapsed and the business was sold. “So I was back down again,” he says. “It took me three years to recover and I had these terrible mood swings that would send me from extreme depression to bouncing-off-the-wall highs.” Diagnosed with Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder, he is on daily medication and also has Tourette’s syndrome.
“People think that means I must shout out swear words, but in my case I’m constantly having to even things out in the room. I could be looking at you but then there’s this black thing here (he motions to an ornament over his left shoulder) and I’ve got to even it out with the chair.”
Post-illness, he moved to Otley and was effectively homeless, sleeping in the changing rooms of an open air swimming pool. Eventually he managed to claw enough money together to rent a bedsit and started a carpet cleaning business. “Then, when the refugee crisis kicked off I stopped it all,” he says, matter-of-factly.
“My brother in America had asked me what I was praying for. It was to be able to afford a new car, a slightly better house, to go on holiday this year. But I was also praying for a purpose.
“I used to watch the TV coverage for the children. When I was in the children’s home I wanted someone to rescue me. And as I got older and took my young one to the park I’d see parents pushing their children on the swings and feel envious, because I never had that.”
So he sold his cleaning equipment and began raising money locally. He started travelling regularly to The Jungle, the sprawling refugee camp at Calais that was forcibly cleared last month, helping to build wooden huts for the refugees to sleep in. And when he saw the heartbreaking images last September of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian boy washed up dead on a Turkish beach as his family attempted to flee the Islamic State, it strengthened his resolve. “I looked at that picture for about an hour and tried to imagine his last minute of life,” he says, closing his eyes. “I had a bath and put the stopwatch on to see how long I could last underwater. I got to a minute and 40 seconds. Imagine him rolling around underwater in the Agean Sea with no one to help him... When you think of it like that you just want to get up and do stuff.”
His visits to Calais saw him strike up a friendship with four-year-old Bahar and her father, Reze. They had fled the Taliban in Afghanistan, taking 15 months to reach France having walked through Austria.
“Bahar followed me round for weeks,” he says. “She’s the cutest little thing. And so intelligent.” He discovered that her cousins lived near St James’s Hospital in Leeds, just 10 miles from his home in Guiseley. Reze kept asking him to take her to them, but Lawrie would tell him not to be stupid. Then one cold night he changed his mind. “She fell asleep on my lap as we sat around the campfire,” he recalls. “It was freezing and I was about to go to the ferry. I thought, I can’t leave her here any more. I was about to take her back to her makeshift shelter and put her to bed on a pallet. She’s four years of age. I just thought, she needs a better chance in life. So I told Reze I’d take her.”
At the Calais border British sniffer dogs found two Eritrean men who, unknown to him, had stowed in the back of his van. He was arrested and had to tell the authorities to go back to the van and look for Bahar, known as Bru. When they brought her into the detention centre she ran over to give him a cuddle. In January, 10 weeks after his suicide attempt, Lawrie was spared jail. To loud applause in the courtroom, a French judge said he would only have to pay a fine, to be waived completely if he commits no further offences.
Since then he has travelled the country raising money to aid his ongoing work. A recent presentation to Palestinian businessmen in London netted nearly £15,000. He is writing a book about his experience and people have flown over from Los Angeles to discuss turning it into a film. He still makes regular journeys to the refugee camps, his latest taking him to the Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. And he is still trying to bring Bahar to Yorkshire, this time through legal channels.
“What I did nearly cost me my house, I’m virtually bankrupt and I’ve lost my marriage. But didn’t it bring global awareness of a different issue than young men trying to get on trucks and trains? “Since it happened there has been a lot of focus on children and people tell me it’s because of my case. So in that respect would I do it again? Yes,” he nods. “Yes, I would.”
A story that split public opinion
Since making headlines around the world with his story, Rob Lawrie has received countless messages of support – but is not without his critics.
“Some of the abuse has been horrific,” he says, “but along with that are the hundreds of messages a week from people who believe I did the right thing.”
More than 50,000 signed a petition calling for him to be spared jail an he is now in the process of setting up a charitable foundation for the donations he continues to collect for refugees across Europe.
“I always say we can’t help everyone – but each of us can help someone.”
He will be giving a talk at Skipton Town hall this Friday to raise awareness of the crisis.