Can you remember what you were doing when you were 13? I was debating the merits of individual boyband members while juggling revision for my SAT exams. Gulwali Passarlay was trying to convince UK immigration authorities he was not 16 and therefore eligible for child refugee status. That was after a year of travelling through perilous circumstances to escape war in Afghanistan.
Gulwali’s The Lightless Sky is arguably the toughest book on this year’s Read Regional catalogue. I joined him at the first Read Regional event at Newcastle City Library to hear about his journey first-hand.
Gulwali lived in Afghanistan with his family until UK and WE forces invaded the country in 2003. Bombings began and the Taliban regime grew increasingly fierce – spending evenings in bunkers avoiding air raids, and days escaping the unwanted attention an uncle in the Taliban generated, became normal. Things got so bad that his mother paid $8,000 to an agent (a people smuggler) to transport Gulwali and his brother to safety in Europe.
And that’s when Gulwali’s journey became truly extraordinary.
For 12 months he ventured through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Italy, France and eventually to the UK. He travelled in chicken coops, was interrogated by police, clung to the underside of a truck to cross a border, jumped from a moving train, spent time in a children’s home, slept rough in a Paris telephone box in winter, and lived in a refugee camp in Calais. He was 12 when he left Afghanistan and 13 when he arrived in the UK.
“Forget being treated like a child, I wasn’t even treated like a human,” he said of his time travelling through this horrific journey.
Reaching the UK was a bittersweet achievement for Gulwali. While he had faced the violence and brutality of police, smugglers and armed rebels throughout his journey, he was not prepared for the institutional suspicion his refugee status provoked in the UK. The authorities didn’t believe he was only 13 – five people interrogated him as they thought he was 16. Without documents or records to back him up, he had nothing to corroborate his age.
Gulwali spoke about feeling like a criminal and that his credibility was challenged at every stage by UK bureaucracy. It seemed to haunt him more than the brutality he had seen on the road. That, at least, was upfront and overt. Being dehumanised by the system that was supposed to help you was worse because of its pernicious ubiquity.
He eventually got to school, had a secure home and thrived. Gulwali passed his GCSEs (despite English being his fifth language); went on to study PPE at Manchester; worked on the UK Youth Parliament; spoke at the UN, and continues to work on a range of projects championing the voice of young people and the plight of refugees.
If refugees get the right support, he argued, they can achieve many things. His aim in life is to be useful and he’s certainly doing that.
While Gulwali still firmly identifies as an Afghan and longs to return to his homeland one day, he views himself as a global citizen. He believes we should think globally and act locally, and show compassion to our neighbours regardless of the physical or cultural borders between us.
I could have listened to Gulwali all night. In fact, the librarian had to usher us out of the door before the library closed, as there were so many eager guests with questions for him.
I asked him how he remains so hopeful and positive given what he’s been through. Many people would have crumbled or emerged in bitterness. He replied: “If things had been easy for me, I wouldn’t be here now. Every day is an opportunity and I don’t want to waste it.” That certainly puts my life into perspective. Those work stresses or struggles to save a mortgage deposit seem rather trivial.
Spending an evening listening to Gulwali is an experience not to be missed. You’ll be shocked, horrified but, above all, uplifted by the story of a man who has faced the worst of life and emerged with a remit to live the best of it.
Find out more about Read Regional: www.newwritingnorth.com/projects/read-regional