Stephan Pelissier describes himself as an ordinary Frenchman leading a normal, unremarkable life in the north of France. He is a legal expert, a loving husband and a proud father of two daughters. But he is also a criminal, at least in the eyes of the Greek justice system, which condemned him to seven years' imprisonment in November 2017.
Pelissier outlines the nature of the offence at the beginning of a powerful new book. “My only crime was wanting to save my family: refusing to abandon my in-laws and their children to certain death as they tried to flee their native country, Syria, which had been torn apart by a conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people and sent millions more into exile,” he explains.
In 2011, Pelissier met Zena, a brilliant Syrian lawyer, who had moved to France to continue her legal studies. The following year the pair became husband and wife. However, casting a cloud over their marital happiness were news reports of the civil war in Zena’s homeland. Her parents endured violence and persecution. The last straw came when Zena’s father was abducted and incarcerated for four months.
Upon his release, the Al Khatib family decided to seek asylum in France. The rejection of their application was the first of many blows. Nevertheless they were intent on staying true to their plan, even if it meant being without refugee status and having to rely on perilous migration networks. In August 2015, having sold virtually everything they owned, Zena’s mother, father, sister, brother and cousin embarked on their journey.
"At the announcement of their departure from Syria, contradictory feelings animated us," Pelissier tells The National. "We were torn between joy and hope to see them leave this country at war. But there was also a certain apprehension given the events that could occur during the whole trip. For it is a journey of more than 4,000 kilometres with 10 countries to cross with more or less repressive policies against refugees – not to mention trafficking of all kinds and the danger of drowning."
The journey was more arduous and treacherous than Pelissier expected. On the first leg, the family were scammed by a travel agent who sold them tickets for a non-existent flight from Beirut to Turkey. Their search for what Pelissier calls “that rare gem, a reliable people-smuggler” to take them to Greece brought them in contact with thugs who demanded all their money and a trafficker who packed them and 60 others on to an eight-metre-long boat.
The boat sank at sea. Fortunately, Greek coastguards rescued them and brought them ashore. When Pelissier learnt his in-laws were planning to risk their lives again by attempting the crossing to Italy, he took matters into his own hands and drove to Greece to get them out himself. Little did he know he would be arrested on suspicion of “aiding and abetting the illegal movement of foreigners.”
“At no point did I ever imagine being accused of this,” he says. “When you do this kind of thing out of love, you don’t expect to be convicted as a common criminal.”
The author's family were eventually released from Greek custody and left to continue the next stage of their journey overland – a trip that incorporated squalid migrant camps, brutal encounters with Hungarian police officers and more unscrupulous traffickers. Mercifully and miraculously, they made it to France and were able to claim asylum.
But Pelissier's ordeal lasted longer. It would be remiss to reveal too much about how matters played out without spoiling the drama that makes up the second half of I Just Wanted to Save My Family. Suffice to say, the author's fight to prove his innocence was made all the more difficult by Kafkaesque bureaucracy and the twin-threat of exorbitant "fines" and a harsh prison sentence.
On the eve of his first trial in 2017, Pelissier posted a question to his Twitter feed: “Should we impose legal sanctions on something that is not morally reprehensible?” Reminded of this, he starts to answer his question by explaining that he committed not a crime with intent to harm, but rather “an act of leniency, of compassion, of solidarity.
“In France, we learn at school about the legacy of the resistance fighters during the Second World War, and the iniquitous and immoral laws that stigmatised certain races or communities. And there were men who disobeyed, who did not apply or respect these laws. Just because something is legal, it doesn’t mean it is good and moral. I believe that it is in these terms that we must think and that is why I asked this question, which is rather an affirmation for me, a real conviction.”
Pelissier clearly has the courage of his convictions. At one point in his memoir, he lists many examples of how he and Zena have been proactive in supporting the cause of refugees. He hopes that the book will raise awareness and “change the outlook on migrants and bring down cliches about foreigners”.
For him, writing it was nothing less than a moral duty. “I decided to write it to testify,” he says. “To testify first of all to the greatest migratory crisis since the Second World War. To bear witness to the conditions of refugees today in Europe. And also to testify to the necessary harmonisation of European legislation.”
He is passionate about this last point where European rulings took their toll on him and his family. There is a heart-stopping moment in the book when the Al Khatibs, supposedly safe in France, face being deported and “readmitted” to Hungary, the country where their fingerprints were taken by force and they were subjected to the worst acts of cruelty.
When asked what can be done by the international community to improve the situation for refugees, Pelissier responds cautiously. “I am neither a politician nor a sociologist, just a citizen trying to think with common sense. The situation is very complex and I don’t want to fall into dangerous generalities.” As an example, he singles out various “human figures” – a Greek policeman, a Hungarian hotel receptionist – who, in contrast to the hostile authorities of their countries, helped his family.
“But I can understand what led countries like Greece or Hungary to introduce hard policies of repression,” he says. “When, like Greece, you have been impacted for decades by migratory flows because of your geographical location, and when European legislation requires all these refugees to seek asylum in your country and not in another, it is not surprising that people suffering an economic crisis turn against foreigners or against the European Union. This pushes those who want to win elections to surf on festering hatreds.”
To be a force for good, Pelissier believes the EU has to make some necessary changes. “It should not make border countries such as Italy or Greece bear all the responsibility for the reception of refugees,” he argues. “It should provide a policy of quotas to spread the burden over all European countries, and also favour the principle of family reunion, giving the refugee the choice to settle in the country where there is already a member of his family.”
Pelissier’s book is a captivating account of both a desperate journey and a fight for justice. It is an appeal for tolerance and a plea for reform. “It is also a lesson of hope,” he says. “The life-paths of refugees are all different, but through struggle, self-sacrifice and resilience, when you are supported, you can overcome the traumas you have experienced and reach relative peace – without forgetting your past but with a form of optimism.”