Gulwali Passarlay’s Journey as a Refugee from Afghanistan to the UK

November 19, 2015

By Aletha Adu

On Wednesday 18 November, Gulwali Passarlay enlightened a packed audience at the Frontline Club into his journey as an unaccompanied child refugee from Afghanistan to the United Kingdom. Joined by former Afghanistan correspondent for the BBC David Loyn, and Nadene Ghouri who co-authored his book The Lightless Sky, Passarlay was keen to address the complexities of the refugee crisis from both a personal and political perspective.

Loyn began the discussion by offering context on the current refugee crisis. “There are many Gulwalis in the world. Almost 60 million people are displaced, between 10 and 15 million people a year move from their homes and Afghanistan is the second largest country people flee from – 800,000 people are internally displaced.”

Passarlay began his journey when his mother paid smugglers to help him escape from Afghanistan after his father and grandfather were shot by US soldiers. “For a mother to decide to send her 12 and 13 year-old children away is extraordinary. I am sure she did not understand the implications and the dangers that I would face along the way. Neither did I,” said Passarlay. “Throughout my journey, my biggest issue and fear was uncertainty.”

Loyn asked Passarlay: “Why do you think your mother trusted your life with smugglers? And what was in it for the smugglers to keep you alive?”

“Smugglers need to maintain their reputation. The system of smuggling is more effective and efficient than the government! She was faced with a difficult circumstance, and through family friends she found a smuggler that was her only hope in giving her sons a better life,” answered Passarlay.

During the harrowing journey Passarlay was separated from his brother, which he referred to as a significantly traumatic experience. “My mother said to not let go of each other, but in Peshawar we were so quickly separated. For the rest of my journey, I had three things to do: I wanted to look for my brother, I needed to get across and I desperately missed home.”

Even arriving in Italy after a life-threatening boat trip from Greece, Passarlay was determined to get to England and find his sibling. “I am forever grateful to the people of Italy who genuinely wanted to keep me safe and welcomed and wanted to help me. But I had to find my brother.”

Responding to Loyn‘s question on why many refugees and migrants have their sights set on the United Kingdom as their final destination, Passarlay said: “I would have loved to have settled in Italy, but the language barrier was far too difficult. Whenever I talk to people from the right-wing, I tell them it’s a great thing for people to want to come to seek refuge in their country. Why? England embodies ideals of hope and opportunity; English is an international language and holds a historical and cultural connection to many countries thanks to the British Empire. But some also believe that Britain was involved in the conflict that exists in their country, such as Afghanistan, so migrants feel Britain has a moral responsibility to take them in.”

Passarlay concluded that he eventually managed to reach England and survive his journey thanks to fellow refugees, who have become his “brothers.”

“As the youngest, I needed help more than anyone. I tried not to show my innocent side, so I acted tough and put on a brave face – but this was not the case. The thousands of people I met were all literally in the same boat as me. We needed each other’s companionship and partnership.”

Loyn then directed the discussion towards Passarlay‘s difficult journey into Greece by boat, when his vessel almost didn’t make it. “Hearing that 2,000 migrants sunk earlier this year kept me awake at night. I feel their pain. I know exactly what they are going through. We were stuck [in the overcrowded boat] for 49 hours.”

Speaking on her experience of writing The Lightless Sky with Passarlay, Ghouri said: “It was a privilege to work with him. The story of unaccompanied refugee children is one I have always wanted to tell, and Gulwali is amazing for deciding to give a voice to many others who have been in his situation.”


In response to a question from Loyn on his advice for the Home Office, Passarlay commented: “What we are doing right now is not enough.”

An audience member from the Office of the Children’s Commissioner for England commended Passarlay for his courage in reporting his story, and said that his book should be used by the Home Office as a guide into how to better process unaccompanied child refugees. The audience member said: “I believe that things have gotten worse since you made your journey Gulwali. My organisation has churned numbers and figures to notice that since December 2014 to March 2015, over half of unaccompanied minors have their age disputed… Local authorities need to rise to the challenge.”

Ghouri agreed that the response to the refugee crisis by both the government and the media had been far from acceptable. “The British press do not report the full picture on the migrant crisis, so people in this country do not understand what is happening. There are only 3,000 people in Calais, but the press makes it feel like there are much more.”

More information about The Lightless Sky is available here.