Rob Lawrie: ‘Why I tried to smuggle four-year-old Afghan refugee out of Calais jungle’

Rob Lawrie (left) with Bahar Ahmadi, a young Afghan girl who he tried to smuggle into the UK from the Jungle in Calais
Rob Lawrie (left) with Bahar Ahmadi, a young Afghan girl who he tried to smuggle into the UK from the Jungle in Calais
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From the quiet cobbled streets of a small Yorkshire town to the stark marble halls of a French criminal court; the clatter and flash of a thousand press photographers and the glare of the world’s media settled firmly on his fate.

Two years ago father Rob Lawrie, a carpet fitter from Guiseley, made a split-second decision to let a young Afghan child hide in his van.

The Calais jungle

The Calais jungle

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 yet it was a decision, he says, that he would consider making again.

“I know what I did,” he said. “But I was trying to save a four year old girl. How can that be wrong?

“I failed her,” he adds simply. “I would rather that little girl was living with her family in Leeds, and nobody knew who I was.”

A carpet fitter by trade, the father-of-four seems an unassuming man. He’s a keen cyclist, a former Army fitness instructor, and is in training for the London marathon.

But after his decision that day, he became the face of Britain’s battle over refugees. A “crime of compassion” he calls it, he was caught trying to transport four-year-old Bahar Ahmadi 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, still picking up the pieces of a life blasted sideways by the storm he unwittingly created, he had simply made a decision which others might not have.

For him, he says, the story started long before he met Bahar, whom he calls Bru, with the pictures of the young Syrian boy washed up on a beach, the same ones which startled the world into action.

“When, like the rest of the world, I saw that picture, it hit me,” he said. “You can’t dismiss a child, washed up on a beach.

“Most people looked at that picture and really felt it, but I couldn’t look away. At that age, he would have expected to have been saved.

“I’ve been in the Army, I know how to survive. I’m a strong lad. I thought I could help here.

“I think it was Ronald Reagan who said ‘we can’t help everybody, but everybody can help someone’. I thought I could make one or two, or even three or four people’s lives better.”

There was an out-pouring of anger, of upset, and of a willingess to help across the country. Mr Lawrie took it one step further - rather than giving money he collected it, and he drove it, along with three van loads of donated goods, to Dunkirk.

On producing a football that first day in the refugee camp, he said, it was like he was Father Christmas. There were children everywhere.

“All the images we’d seen until then were of young, intimidating men,” he said. “What I saw was children, and lots of them. Young children, one, two years old. And I knew what was coming. A northern winter.

“I came back and started asking for money, like I was Bob Geldof and this was Live Aid. And it started coming in.”

Spurred into action, he would raise money in Yorkshire and take it to the camps, helping to build shelters for the families struggling to brave the coming cold.

That was in September 2015, and it was on his second or third trip when he met Bru. Chopping wood, he felt a tug on his arm, and looked down to see her staring up at him.

“There was this little four-year-old Afghan girl, with the most beautiful brown eyes you’ve ever seen,” he said. “She started running around in circles, asking ‘how are you?’ in a singsong accent.

“There’s a massive misconception that I rocked up in the jungle and chose a kid,” he adds.

“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 very strong paternal bond.”

From that first day, Bru would follow him around camp. Mr Lawrie was friendly with her father, and it gave him a break from the constant pressure of supervising a very active child.

“When I first met her I thought she was a chunky little kid, but she wasn’t,” he said. “She was just wearing four or five layers of clothing.

“Someone from Otley once sent some boots for her but we couldn’t get them on. It turned out she had five pairs of socks on as she was so cold.”

Not long after they met, Bru’s father Reze asked him to take her to his sister in Leeds. Mr Lawrie laughed it off - it just wasn’t going to happen, he said. But Mr Ahmadi was to ask again and again, and although he was adamant, the idea had taken root.

On October 24, after a day of building, Mr Lawrie and some of the families were sitting around the 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.”

His van had a cab for sleeping in above the front. Bru was lifted in, along with her teddy bear which had been gifted by Mr Lawrie’s daughter Ruby , and strapped in before her father said goodbye.

“If I was trying to get drugs into the country, or thousands of cigarettes, I’d have been panicking,” said Mr Lawrie. “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 didn’t know I had castaways.”