Posted: 22 October 2015

The Lightless Sky: an Afghan refugee boy’s journey of escape to a new life in Britain

Gulwali Passarlay, one of our young commissioners for the Children’s Commission on Poverty, fled Afghanistan aged 12. This is his story of survival.

A harrowing journey in search of sanctuary

I left Afghanistan a 12 year old boy — alone, afraid, unknowing.  

One year later, after a journey through eight countries amid danger, brutality and near death experiences, I arrived in Great Britain forever changed by what I have witnessed and what I know of pain, poverty and despair.

In Iran I was shot at by border guards. In Turkey people smugglers locked us up for days without food or water — then I was sent to an adult prison.  

In Bulgaria I jumped from a speeding train nearly breaking both my legs, the same happened in France. Then there was the so-called jungle of Calais; I felt dehumanised — I simply wanted to die.

But the saying, ‘there is always someone worse off then you’, was also true on my journey. Although a child myself, I was 12, my heart always broke when I saw children younger than I en route.

There was not a day I didn’t live in fear or witness violence and man’s inhumanity to man.

Gulwali Passarlay

But I also saw many random acts of kindness, and it is these moments I choose to remember the most. The old lady in Paris who gave me some coins and hugged me in the snow; the lady in Greece who helped me off a sinking boat and gave me a blanket.

Of course I’m also now safe, but I still wake up screaming with nightmares. Often it happens after I have read a news story about yet another migrant ship sinking in the Mediterranean Sea or Atlantic Ocean.

I remember the boat that I boarded for Athens. I was scared because I knew that boats like this sometimes sink. It was very crowded. It was only for 50 people, but we were over 100. We ran out of food and water. We were treated like animals. Everything hurt.

Water started to come in the boat. Some people jumped out but I stayed on. Police came to arrest us. I didn’t want to die there, in the water. If I did, my body would be lost and my family would never know what happened to me or where I was. This is the most scared I ever was.

To borrow more money than you can earn in years, only to pay it to men who will brutalise and degrade you – maybe even kill you – this could be described as an act of madness.

It is not. It is an act of desperation.

Giving back

Seven years since arriving in the UK, I appreciate every opportunity that I have.  I’ve seen so much hardship and death that when an opportunity to learn something new or to give my time to others comes along, I grab it with both hands.  The day I carried the Olympic torch through the UK was an incredibly precious day. But so is every morning since I was granted asylum.

Gulwali Passarlay

Each morning I wake up and aim to do something special and unique. And if I can’t do something special, then I just resolve to make the most of the ordinariness of the day and not waste a single moment. This could account for how much I’ve achieved: Learning English (my fifth language) gaining a place at a top British university, becoming a community activist and now, writing a book.

I am unusual though. The sad reality is many young refugees, Afghans or otherwise, arrive to safety and find it is not what they hoped and dreamed. They find themselves living in poverty, unable to fit into their new society, homesick and increasingly angry, dispossessed or even radicalised.

I was lucky – and young enough – to be placed with loving foster parents who gave me support, stability and guidance.

As part of my community work I sometimes get the opportunity to share my story with children. At a visit to a school recently, one boy of around 12, the same age I was when I crossed half the world, asked me if I knew what the purpose of my life was.  It was a profound question and I smiled to myself that someone so young had asked it.

The answer is pretty simple: I want to help people less fortunate than myself. 

he Lightless Sky: An Afghan Refugee Boy’s Journey of Escape to a New Life in Britain

The Lightless Sky: An Afghan Refugee Boy’s Journey of Escape to a New Life in Britain by Gulwali Passarlay and Nadene Ghouri

Published by Atlantic Books £18.99 Hardback

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