"I know a lot of Afghans with extraordinary stories. But they are unwilling to tell them, because being an asylum seeker is seen as a negative thing. I decided my story had to be told, so people can understand why refugees are leaving—and how we should be treating them when they come [to the UK].”
Gulwali Passarlay is the most awe-inspiring 21-year-old I have ever met. After only two years of secondary education he gained 10 GCSEs. He then completed his A-levels, and is currently studying politics and philosophy at the University of Manchester. He is an Education Youth Ambassador, a Model Westminster Ambassador, a Young Labour representative, president of the United Afghan Peace Movement, and he was chosen to carry the Olympic Torch through Bolton in 2012. He is immensely articulate in a language that he spoke not a word of until eight years ago, and is intent on changing the world.
A great leap of imagination is necessary, therefore, to connect the smartly dressed, smiling young man before me—who charmingly insists on paying for our coffee—with the scrawny, filthy and deeply traumatised boy who arrived in the UK inside a refrigerated truck of bananas in the winter of 2007. It was his 200th attempt to stow away across the Channel and reach the country he had heard was “tolerant and nice”.
I decided my story had to be told, so people can understand why refugees are leaving—and how we should be treating them when they come
Passarlay was born in Nanghahar province, in eastern Afghanistan, into an affluent Pashtun family. His upbringing was conservative, religious and loving. His uncle was a senior Taliban commander. Then came 9/11 and the invasion by coalition forces.“All my childhood I heard the sound of guns and the sound of planes and the sound of bombs.” Then his father, a doctor, was killed in a gun battle with US soldiers, who believed he was hiding weapons that were being used against US troops. In 2006, with 12-year-old Gulwali and his brother Hazrat receiving threats from both the US military and the Taliban, their terrified mother paid thousands of dollars to people-traffickers to get her sons to “safety” in Europe. Separated from Hazrat almost immediately, Gulwali endured a horrifying, snakes and ladders journey across eight countries before he made it to the UK.
The full, riveting story is told in The Lightless Sky (Atlantic Books), written with award-winning journalist and broadcaster Nadene Ghouri. It is Gulwali’s story, but also a story of our times. He is sold like a sheep in Turkey to traffickers who lock him up without food or water for days. He jumps from a speeding train in Bulgaria, nearly breaking both his legs. He leaps from the third floor of a children’s home in Italy (his injuries still cause him discomfort). Most terrifyingly of all, he almost drowns when a boat, sickeningly overloaded with migrants, sinks in the Aegean Sea. Each hellish staging post leaves him longing for the previous hell. He suffers brutality and contempt at the hands of pitiless people-traffickers, police and prison guards, and occasionally encounters the kindness of strangers.
By the time he claimed asylum in the UK a year later, Gulwali had gained such a hard-knock air of maturity that the British immigration authorities refused to believe he was only 13, deeming him to be 16. It looked as if he might be deported within months. Then, with the help of the superb-sounding Starting Point pupil referral unit in Bolton, he found a home with loving and supportive foster parents, and was finally able to start school.
“I have been changed forever by what I have witnessed. But after all my awful experiences, I don’t want to waste a single second. I came here and I want to make a difference. I don’t just take. I give back.” With ambitions to go into diplomacy and become a negotiator with the UN after his studies, Gulwali’s ultimate goal is to run to be president of Afghanistan. I, for one, would not bet against him doing so. After insisting on a selfie together, I leave feeling fortunate to live freely in a country where good people gave Gulwali Passarlay a chance. But I feel even more fortunate to have met Gulwali himself.
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- Michel Faber | “One of the things I keep coming back to in my fiction is how much people underestimate the degree to which they really are on a different planet from the person right next to them”
- Sean Taylor & Hannah Shaw | "I like my stories to have a bit of fierceness in them, that's down to my taste, but I know it's also something that interests children."
- Freya North | “I will never start by thinking: ‘What are the issues I want to address?’ I very much tell stories as they come to me”