First of All
My name is Stéphan Pélissier. I’m forty-seven years old. I live in Albi, a small town in southwest France, with my wife, Zena, and our two young daughters. I go to work, pay off my mortgage, and on Sundays we often go to my parents’ house for roast chicken. As you can see, my life is unremarkable, ordinary, and that’s the way I like it.
I’m just like any other Frenchman.
But I’m also a criminal who was condemned to seven years’ imprisonment by the Greek justice system in November 2017.
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.
An ordinary Frenchman surrounded by a loving family. A Syrian woman, a brilliant lawyer who wanted to complete her studies in France, a country she’d always loved.
And her parents, caught in the vise of civil war and then the horrors of an escape with a very uncertain outcome, buffeted between grasping human-smugglers and inhuman laws.
These are the people you will meet in this book.
This is my story, it is our story. And when you have finished reading it, I hope you will feel it is yours too.
“What are you doing, Stéphan? We’re going to be late!” This must be the tenth time I’ve tied my tie today, but I can’t get it right. I do it often enough, except that today I’m not just going to a meeting. I’m getting married.
Two little knocks at the door, and my mother comes in. She finds me facing the mirror in my bedroom in the family home, dressed impeccably from head to foot but with my tie still askew. I’m starting to lose patience. My mother instantly understands the problem.
“Give it to me, darling, your father will fix it.”
He taught me in the first place, he’s mastered this art. She soon comes back with a perfectly knotted tie, and I’m immediately calmer. I catch my mother looking at me in the mirror, full of pride and emotion. This gives me a chance to look at her too, my mother, my mom, the woman who gave me the love that allows me in turn to love. She’s dressed beautifully today, radiant with happiness and more than a little relief: She was starting to worry because I still wasn’t married at thirty-nine.
“You’ll be down soon, won’t you?”
I just need to arrange my pocket square and I’ll be ready. I’m marrying the most beautiful woman in the world, so the least I can do is perfect my appearance.
My fiancée isn’t far away: While I’ve battled with my tie, Zena has been dressing in my parents’ bedroom, helped by her Serbian friend, Yelena. My bride-to-be will wear a dress we bought together in Nancy. Not very traditional! Just like our story so far, in fact . . .
I race down the stairs four at a time. A minute later Zena comes down too. I gaze at her, so beautiful in her long bustier dress that accentuates her spectacular figure. She’s wearing simple pearl earrings and a necklace of fine lace. To my way of thinking, it’s obvious: A Hollywood star is coming toward me, smiling. The gentle toot of a car horn brings me back to the moment. The rental car has come to take us to the Mairie—the town hall.
All our guests are waiting outside. It’s a short list: my close family and my closest friends, about thirty of us in all. Because my future wife’s family can’t join us for the big day, I’m very glad Yelena is here with her.
My father takes my fiancée’s arm, and my mother takes mine, and that’s how we make our entrance at Castelginest’s Mairie. My father has put on his red, white, and blue sash. We are especially lucky: As Castelginest’s town councillor, he will conduct our marriage ceremony. This makes me very happy, and I hope it’s a source of pride for a man I’ve always been afraid of disappointing.
“Come in, my friends!” he says in a powerful voice, and our little gathering settles into the Mairie’s only room. Zena and I stay standing, side by side, facing my father, who has donned his glasses to read to us from the civil code. But before he starts, he puts the text down for a moment and looks at us.
“My children, I’m the happiest of men this morning: I have the pleasure of officiating the marriage of my son, Stéphan, to the woman he loves. Not only am I witnessing my son’s happiness, I also have the pleasure of welcoming Zena into our family. I know what’s happening in Syria, and I’m painfully aware of what your parents are going through. Welcome, Zena, you will be like a daughter to me now.”
The exchange of vows will be imprinted on my memory for the rest of my days. Although we’re speaking to my father, Zena and I turn to face each other, and our Yeses echo in the small hall. Zena’s is serious and gentle, mine resonant and vibrant. Caught up in the momentousness of our promises, neither of us smiles.
After posing for a few photographs in the Mairie’s garden, we all head for the restaurant near Toulouse that we’ve rented out for the occasion. The order of the day is a very simple reception with a few speeches, music—some of it Greek, some of it Middle Eastern—and champagne. I stand up to speak just before dessert.
“Dear friends and family, thank you for being here today! My darling, I’m so happy to be your husband, even though I still don’t know how I got you to fall in love with me. It’s a miracle, but God is great, every religion says so!”
My friends laugh out loud and Zena smiles.
“Thank you for coming to be with us today,” I continue, “some of you from a long way away. I’d like to remember those who are no longer with us, who we wish were here. And also people dear to me who couldn’t join us: my wife’s family. A special thank you to my close family: my sister, Sandra; my niece, Charlotte; and you, my parents. Lastly, of course I want to talk about the woman who became my wife today. Zena, I’d like to pay tribute to you for your sensitivity, your erudition, your cooking, and your strong personality, and of course I must mention your physical beauty and your inner beauty. I would like to honor your culture by reading an extract from the holy Koran, sura 113:
“I take refuge with the Lord of Daybreak, from the evil of what He created, and from the evil of the
darkness as it gathers, and from the evil of those who practice sorcery, and from the evil of the envious when he envies.”
Now it’s Zena’s turn to stand, and her whole body seems to be quivering with emotion.
“I’d like to thank my parents-in-law, Claude and Marianne, and my sister-in-law, Sandra. They’ve welcomed me and taken me in as one of the family. They respect who I am and my origins. My thoughts are also with those who are far away but are always in my heart: my parents, whom I love so much. They have accepted my choices and trusted me. They love Stéphan and have welcomed him as he is. Lastly, I’d like to thank you, Stéphan, the man who is now my husband. I love how sensitive you are, and I love your strong character too—as you all know, sparks can fly with us two! I promise I will be faithful, loving, and true to you.”
My wife sits down amid the applause, looks at me, and kisses me. “To the happy couple!” reverberates around the room, not for the first time, as the restaurant manager brings in the wedding cake, which was delivered by the local patisserie this morning. In pride of place at the top of this sculpted confection stand a tiny bride and groom in pulled sugar.
My head’s spinning a little, if I’m honest. Zena’s eyes, the champagne, my friends’ smiles, children laughing as they run between the tables . . . And it all happened so quickly! To think that fifteen months ago I hadn’t even met Zena . . .