Rob Lawrie had a choice. On one side lay the law — you can’t sneak a 4-year-old girl across international borders — and on the other side sat his sentiments: How could he leave that girl trapped in a squalid migrant camp?
He led with his heart — and was caught. He goes on trial Thursday in France, accused of aiding illegal immigration for trying to take Bahar Ahmadi from the settlement in Calais, France, to safety in England, where the Afghan girl had family waiting to look after her.
Judges in Boulogne-Sur-Mer will determine if the ex-British soldier is a criminal, or a compassionate man who couldn’t turn his back on a child in need.
In September, he gave in to the repeated pleas of the girl’s father, Reza Ahmadi, who begged him to spirit his daughter across the English Channel, but they were stopped by guards who eventually found her squirreled away in Lawrie’s van, teddy bear squeezed tightly to her chest.
Lawrie, 49, faces criminal charges that carry a maximum prison term of five years and a 30,000-euro ($32,500) fine — even as thousands have flocked to his Facebook page to express admiration for what he’s done and signed an online petition urging the British government to ask the French for clemency.
“I had told her father ‘no’ many times,” Lawrie said in his small suburban-style house in Guiseley, 210 miles (335 kilometers) north of London. “But half past 10 one rainy night, when she fell asleep on my knee as I was leaving for the ferry, I just couldn’t leave her there anymore. All rational thought left my head.”
He said he bonded with “Bru” — the girl’s nickname — after he volunteered to help design and build shelters at the squalid camp in Calais that is home to about 4,200 people fleeing war and poverty.
“She left Afghanistan, with her father via traffickers, when she was less than 3,” he said. “It’s incomprehensible. The reason I became so close is I never once saw her without a smile on her face.”
He said he could no longer leave her in a cold, dangerous and unsanitary camp when she had family waiting for her living close by his home in northern England.
The sprawling Calais camp of windy mud paths is located near the now well-secured ferry port but a several-hours walk to the Euro tunnel that provides road and rail links between Britain and France.
It has evolved into a slum with migrants and volunteers like Lawrie helping to build lean-tos and shops. Two schools have cropped up along with small tent mosques and an impressive church built by Eritreans and Ethiopians that dominates the masses of tents and black tarp held up by sticks.
The camp, which sprang up last spring with the opening of a center to house about 100 women and children, has the unofficial blessing of the French state. Migrants gravitated to the area on the edge of Calais when smaller camps scattered around the city were bulldozed.
The French state has since found itself in a bind as criticism of the camp’s conditions mounts. An addition to the settlement with basic amenities like heating officially opened Monday to the first of 1,500 people it will house.
Lawrie, who had a carpet-cleaning business, devoted himself fulltime to helping the migrants after seeing the picture of the body of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach in September. He imagined that boy’s final minutes — gasping for air without success, alone in strange waters — and jumped into action, raising money for the people stranded at camps in both Calais and nearby Dunkirk.
His crusade has come at a cost. His house has the photos, toys and knick-knacks associated with a happy family life, but his wife has left with their four children, leaving the house oddly silent.
He blames himself, saying he failed to bring her on board regarding his extensive volunteer work in France.
Lawrie’s Paris-based lawyer, Lucile Abassade, said he is charged with “aiding and abetting illegal immigration.”
“He gave in to his emotion,” she said. “He saw this child outside in the cold...and he cracked.”
Abassade said the charges don’t relate to the discovery of two Eritrean migrants who were also found in his van and are believed to have sneaked into the vehicle without Lawrie’s knowledge.
She said Reza Ahmadi and his daughter are still in Calais as winter grips. The father has told reporters he asked Lawrie to take his daughter to safety.
Efforts to locate the father in the sprawling camp were unsuccessful.
Maya Konforti, who works at the camp with the association Auberge des Migrants, confirmed they are still there. She said the camp is home to several hundred young children and many families.
“The weather is bad. There is mud everywhere ... There is no heat. There is hardly any distribution of wood” for heat or cooking, she said.
Calais authorities say 17 migrants have died in the region in the last six months.
Lawrie said children in the camp are increasingly vulnerable to traffickers, criminal gangs and violent abusers.
“You have people from very dark websites gravitating toward these camps, and these children are easy pickings,” he said. “You can pick them up and they’ll be lost forever.”
He wants French authorities to understand he is not a smuggler trying to profit from the crisis.
“I hope the prosecutors will see that, because I don’t want to go to prison,” he said.
Still, he admits what he did was illegal — and he refuses to cast himself a hero.
“The Allied troops in World War II, Oskar Schindler, Martin Luther King, they’re heroes,” he said. “They put their lives on the line to save other people. I put my liberty on the line. That doesn’t make me a hero. It makes me a bit stupid, maybe. I’m an ex-carpet cleaner from northern England, that’s what I am.”