The odyssey of the Al Khatib family, from Damascus, Syria, to Paris France, is illustrated in a simple map at the beginning of Stéphan Pélissier’s memoir. The lines and dots link various cities, showing where they traveled and how – by coach, water bus, taxi, car, on foot and in an inflatable boat. But the horrors and suffering behind that journey, as related by Pélissier, paint a vivid and poignant picture of what Syrian refugees experience fleeing their war-torn country for what they hope will be a better life in Europe.
The title of Pélissier’s memoir, I Just Wanted to Save My Family, refers to his own plight – being threatened with 15 years in a Greek prison for human smuggling. Pélissier, a French lawyer, married Zena, a Syrian who came to France to study law. With the war in Syria ratcheting up, Zena’s family – father, Saif, mother, Wafaa, sister, Mayada, brother, Anas, and nephew, Samer – decide to ask for asylum in France. They manage the first part of the trip on their own, even surviving a water crossing in an inflatable boat. But Pélissier insists on meeting them in Greece to escort them on the remainder of their journey.
He drives to Genoa and takes a ferry to the Greek port of Patras. He finally meets his in-laws in Athens and they enjoy a celebratory dinner together. Although Pélissier speaks Greek (his grandmother was from Crete), he badly underestimates what they will face trying to leave Greece. With Zena’s family in the car, Pélissier drives to Patras, planing to board the ferry back to Italy. But their car is stopped by police. When Pélissier can’t find the car’s registration and the family tries to explain they lost their documents in the water crossing, the entire group is arrested. After a night in jail and an appearance before a judge, Pélissier is told they will keep his car and he must pay a fine. They are free to go. Pélissier returns to France while the family is left to attempt a trek through the Balkans on their own.
While the memoir is Pélissier’s, other narrators take up the story. Zena at times recounts what’s happening back in France, while her brother, Ana, tells what happened when they ventured through Macedoinia, Serbia, and then to Hungary, where they are again arrested and forcibly fingerprinted. A smuggler promises passage only to rob them of all their money. Their fortunes begin to look up when they reach Germany. At the Munich train station, hundreds of Germans wave signs with the words “Welcome!” in German and Arabic. Finally, they reach France and are reunited with Zena and Pélissier.
But the family’s struggles continue. Asking for asylum in France becomes an arduous task. Under the Dublin III Regulation, member states of the European Union decided that the responsibility for examining refugees’ requests for asylum would go to the first country in which they arrived. Because the family’s fingerprints were taken in Hungary, they face possible deportation. Months go by with the family making frequent trips to government offices, hoping their situation will reach some resolution and they will be able to stay in France.
The final blow occurs when Pélissier is notified that he is being charged with human smuggling because of what happened on the ferry. (A police officer denies that Pélissier identified his passengers as family.) His Greek lawyer is useless, and the possibility that he might spend years in prison becomes very real.
While Pélissier and the family encountered many unhelpful, even cruel, public officials, there were others who helped. A French doctor treated all members of the family, Wafaa, for her broken arm, and Mayada, for her pancreatitis, all for no cost. And the media played a large role in bringing the family’s travails to the public’s attention.
We’ve all seen the photos of refugees from Syria, as well as from other countries, risking their lives for freedom, (Here in the U.S., those dramas play out on our southern borders with little help or compassion from the Trump administration.) Pélissier manages to take us inside the lives of these people. They are us. We identify with their concerns, hopes, and aspirations. In the U.S., we are all immigrants, some more recent than others. But we all have relatives who once crossed land or water to provide a better future for themselves and their children. Because of that, Pélissier’s memoir resonates.
I Just Wanted to Save My Family
Top photo: Bigstock