23 Dec / I Just Wanted to Save My Family: A Memoir by Stéphan Pélissier with Cécile-Agnès Champart, translated by Adriana Hunter [in Shelf Awareness]
The title alone is a universally resounding cry for help: I Just Wanted to Save My Family. It also proves to be French legal expert and first-time author Stéphan Pélissier’s best defense to challenge a guilty verdict that demands seven years of imprisonment. Co-written with Cécile-Agnès Champart and translated by the prodigious and award-winning Adriana Hunter, Pélissier’s earnest memoir provides polyphonic testimony to resilience, justice, and, most of all, the unbreakable bonds of familial love.
Pélissier and his wife, Zena, a Syrian immigrant pursuing her Ph.D. in penal law, meet on a dating site in April 2011. After an initial (almost comical) misunderstanding about commitment and other women, the pair share an idyllic courtship, discussing marriage after only six months. The Syrian war prevents both families from being present at the couple’s French wedding, but the newly intended couple manage to meet Zena’s parents and siblings in Beirut to receive joyous blessing just before their July 2012 nuptials.
The violence continues to escalate in Syria, claiming Zena’s family’s apartment in Damascus. And then her father is abducted for four months in 2014. France is the logical destination for relocation, with Zena and her sister already living there, and yet the rest of the family inexplicably is denied asylum. Relying on illegal migration networks becomes the only alternative for escape. Parents Saif and Wafaa, sister Mayada, and brother Anas – with the last-minute addition of cousin Samer – abandon Syria in the summer of 2015, resolved to reach France. Their perilous odyssey is interrupted in Greece, where the potentially fatal threat of crossing into Italy is so great that Pélissier travels to Athens determined to secure a legal ferry crossing for his extended in-laws. His brave intentions land the entire group in Greek prison; despite a surprisingly quick release, Pélissier was eventually charged by the Greek government with human trafficking, sparking a labyrinthine, four-year journey for justice. His in-laws’ arduous path, meanwhile, continues across more countries, and they encounter further alarming obstacles before finally achieving reunion.
While Pélissier isn’t (yet) an elegant writer – the narrative is occasionally clumsy, the timeline a bit scattered and repetitive – what he lacks in style is easily, abundantly compensated with raw, fervent, unwavering emotion. Intertwined with his own impassioned recollections are the first-person accounts of Zena, who relates both her husband’s and her family’s ordeals, and youngest brother Anas, who details the family’s agonizing decision to abandon their homeland and the resulting uncertain aftermath. Their “jokey” designation as “the ‘good criminals’” proves to be “[their] way of recording the absurdity of the situation,” as well as preserving their inspiring, tenacious document of triumph.
Shelf Talker: I Just Wanted to Save My Family becomes both a personal goal and legal defense in a Frenchman’s odyssey – as absurd as it is harrowing – to help his Syrian wife’s family reach safety in France.
Published: 2019 (France), 2021 (United States)