Gulwali Passarlay was still a child when his father, a doctor, was killed by US forces in Afghanistan. The Taliban tried to recruit both him and his brother, using the tragedy as bait and justification. “Fight or die” they were told. The pair fled the country instead in 2006.
Gulwali was just 12 but the people traffickers separated him from his older brother immediately. That’s when he began his journey, walking through countries including Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and Italy, arrested and assaulted along the way. He heard his brother was going to the UK so crossed the Mediterranean in a 20-person boat with 120 people crammed aboard. He endured a 50-hour journey without food or drink before finally getting into a lorry in Calais.
Almost 15 years later, he has a degree from Manchester University and a new book, The Lightless Sky, about his journey. He talks to Jane Graham in this week’s Letter To My Younger Self.
At 16 I was finally at school in Bolton, doing my GCSEs. I’d spent the three years since I arrived in Britain in dispute with the home office and social services over my age and nationality. By the time I was 16 I was still in legal limbo regarding my refugee status, but they let me go to school. I was put into a foster placement with a wonderful couple, but foster placement was very new for me, so it was very strange. And my brother had left me to go home to support our mother, who was in danger. So I was very stressed out. Things were pretty bad in my life, except at school.
I had to flee Afghanistan when I was just 12, after my father was killed. Then I had to travel a very long distance in insufferable conditions, constantly being mistreated by the authorities in Europe. It was a terrible and hellish journey covering thousands of miles, and it took me over a year. And everywhere I went I was not welcomed. Being a refugee is not a choice. It’s something imposed upon you.
I was very different type of teenager to the ones I met in Britain. Because of everything that happened to me I grew up fast. I wanted to take every chance I got, so I quickly got very involved with every aspect of the school. I was put in the bottom class for everything because of my broken English, but I worked my socks off to prove them wrong.
The school didn’t expect me to get any GSCEs and I got 10. I was part of the senate of the school council, then I was a school ambassador. Literally, everything that I could get involved in, I did. The UK Youth Parliament, the Children’s Society… I did a lot of volunteering, a lot of engaging work, because I felt like I had a voice and I wanted to use it.
In 2012, when I was in sixth form, I was actually selected to carry the Olympic torch because of my work and activities and the struggles that I had faced. I was one of 1,000 people chosen out of a million people. So that’s something I’m quite proud of. I was very determined then. I’ve become a lot more lazy. And I complain about everything. When I was younger I didn’t complain, I just got my head down and kept trying.
Maybe I should tell my 16-year-old self to have a little more fun, but I felt I couldn’t afford it. I didn’t have much time for the usual teenage things. I didn’t go to the pub because as a Muslim we don’t do that. I did spend some time with friends, and at weekends I used to work in a restaurant. Sometimes I would watch cricket and Formula One. But generally whenever I had time, I wanted to be really productive. I wrote a best-selling book [The Lightless Sky]. I’ve become a spokesperson for refugees. You don’t just become an author and a speaker overnight, I spent years working to do those things.
Once I was living in England I was in touch with my family around once a week. It has always been quite distressing and upsetting to not be with them. And when I carried the Olympic torch I would have loved for my mum or my family to have been there. But my foster parents were there, which was nice. And people were cheering me on. And when I graduated from university it was great to have my brother with me. But yes, there are occasions that happen once in a lifetime, like when I got married, and when I had my daughter a few months ago, when you want your loved ones to be around. And that’s been missing for me. There’s always going to be a feeling of something missing. Britain is my adopted country. But Afghanistan will always be home.
When I was young I was mostly with my grandparents, living in the mountains. I was very close to them. I actually slept in their room, I was with them always. They were amazing, kind-hearted people who would literally give me their own food from their mouth. They protected me; when there was cold or rain, they would hold me tight. I learned a lot of things, a lot of great, great wisdom from them. One of the saddest things was when my grandmother passed away a few years ago. I wasn’t there to hold her hand and show her how much I loved her. I remember when I was leaving home she said to me, when you come back I might not be around. That really breaks my heart. The other thing is that my little sister passed away when I was doing my dissertation at university and writing my book. It was very tragic, she was only 13. She was so young, she had a future ahead of her, and I wasn’t able to help her and be there with her. She developed extreme mental health problems, she was emotionally disturbed. That nearly broke me.
I didn’t really have a closeness with my parents. Back home, it’s like your parents don’t show affection, they don’t give you much love, though my aunties and uncles showered us with love.. Being away so much as well, I missed out on having a friendship with my siblings and my cousins. Even when I saw them we didn’t actually have time to play because we were very busy kids. We had to work in the fields, we had to study at the mosque, we had to study at school, and we had to work in our shop. So I didn’t really have a childhood, except during those few years living in the mountains, just running around.
I’d tell my younger self everything in life happens for a reason. I learned that through my religious education. Throughout the war in Afghanistan, everything that was happening, I always believed that. Even when I was making the journey and the smuggler separated me from my brother and I was very upset, heartbroken. I tried to look for my brother and I couldn’t find him. Then I heard he was heading to Britain, so I continued. Now with hindsight, I think the smugglers did something very smart. They separated us because we would have lost each other on the journey anyway, and it would have been difficult to see each other suffering, going through such pain together. It was good that he wasn’t with me.
If I could go back to any time in my life it would be when I was about six years old living in the mountains with my grandparents. I was running around chasing goats, and we had horses and donkeys. We used to collect wood to make fires and we churned butter and made yoghurt. We didn’t really care about time. We just went by the sun and by nature, and it was really beautiful. But, I know now, nothing lasts forever.
The Lightless Sky by Gulwali Passarlay is out now (Atlantic, £9.99)
Correction: This interview has been corrected to show that Gulwali left Afghanistan when he was 12, not 11, that the graduation photograph is from his global governance MPA at Coventry University, and to remove a reference to the his journey being 2,000 miles.
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