Aid worker who took pity on little girl fears going to jail for his ‘moment of madness’

Rob Lawrie with Bahar Ahmadi
Rob Lawrie with Bahar Ahmadi
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He describes it as a “moment of madness”, many more would call it a moment of pure kindness and humanity.

When Leeds aid worker Rob Lawrie agreed to help a desperate father get his daughter to family members living in Yorkshire, he was not thinking of the possible consequences. Instead, his only thoughts were that he could not leave the Afghan four-year-old in the midst of the chaos that was the The Jungle camp in Calais.

The Calais 'Jungle' camp

The Calais 'Jungle' camp

Four months later, he faces jail - and will discover just what that moment will cost him in a French court this week.

The former Army physical training instructor from Guiseley was helping to build shelters in the notorious camp when he got to know Bahar Ahmadi - known as Bru - and her family.

As he prepared to leave the camp in October last year, Bru’s father Reza pleaded with him to take her to close family members living in legally Leeds, just 20 miles from his own home.

“All rational thought left me,” he said. “I thought, how can I leave this little girl here.

Rob Lawrie with Bahar Ahmadi.

Rob Lawrie with Bahar Ahmadi.

“There’s a family there that can pay for her, educate her, love her, house her. She’ll have her own bedroom. Or, I can give her back to her dad who’s going to put her back in a cold shelter and carry on living like that.”

And so, in an instant, the decision was made. He would take her.

But Mr Lawrie, 49, was caught when British sniffer dogs at the Calais border found two Eritrean men who, unknown to him, had stowed in the back of his van.

He was arrested and it was only when in custody that he had to tell the authorities to go back to the van and look for Bru. He said French police appeared to believe him when they brought Bru into the detention centre and she ran over to give him a cuddle.

Mr Lawrie, who runs his own carpet cleaning business in Otley, spent five nights in a French prison and now faces a charge of aiding illegal immigration. He will plead guilty on Thursday when he appears before magistrates in Boulogne.

The former Royal Corps of Transport soldier said he feels numb as he waits to hear his fate. The worry has taken a toll. He has lost three stone since October and has been told the maximum sentence he faces is five years in jail or a £22,560 fine.

Asked if he thinks a jail sentence is possible, he said: “I would say probable. I just thought this girl needs a better life than this. I have one saying in life - you can’t help everyone but everyone can help someone. Bru and her dad had become my someone.”

Mr Lawrie said: “What I did was highly wrong. It was done on the spur of the moment.

“It was done in a mind that had no rational thinking going on. Any volunteer that’s been in one of these camps for a period of time will tell you that rational thoughts just leave you, just don’t exist. I got sucked in and tried to help a little girl.”

He added: “I am preparing myself for the worst and hoping for the best.”

More than 50,000 people have signed a petition urging Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond to ask the French for clemency.

The petition’s creator, Jim Innes, wrote: “The current refugee crisis has affected millions of people and by showing solidarity by helping those in The Jungle, Calais, Rob’s life has been changed forever. Knowing that a four year old girl could be reunited with her family just 20 miles from where he lives, where she could be warm, fed and safe meant he took drastic action.

“Rob shouldn’t be treated as a criminal, but as an ordinary man who trying to do the right thing in extraordinary circumstances.”

How Brits were moved to help

The thousands living in the Jungle, a makeshift migrant camp in Calais, came to national attention last summer.

In June, around 2,500 people were staying in tents in the French port, but this has now risen to around 6,000.

Many have fled war and poverty in Africa, the Middle East and Afghanistan, with some trying to see refuge across the Channel in the UK by attempting to board trains or lorries heading for England. The numbers peaked in July, when some 2,000 migrants a night were trying to get into the Eurotunnel terminal.

Since then, with the situation gaining daily news coverage, aid efforts from the UK have intensified, with many groups in Yorkshire collecting supplies for the camp.