Amnesty NI’s Patrick Corrigan introduced their annual Belfast Festival lecture as “a story of our times”. Gulwali Passarlay moved the discourse about refugees away from statistics and gave it a human face.
A reluctant school child, his community’s life changed at the point that the US invasion took place. Standing behind the podium in the Crescent Arts Centre, he described the actions of his Taliban uncle (who ended up running a prison holding Taliban prisoners).
His mother took the decision to pay for 12 year old Gulwali and his brother to be smuggled out of the country to safety. Soon separated from his brother, it was a year long tortuous journey with repeated arrests, multiple imprisonments, a crammed boat, and many escapes from authorities and institutions. If I caught his narrative correctly, 7000+ miles through Afghanistan -> Iran -> Turkey -> Bulgaria -> Turkey -> Iran -> Turkey -> boat -> Greece -> Italy (from where he escaped from the third floor of a children’s home) -> Belgium -> France (Calais) -> UK.
He said that his treatment in Italy stood out above the other countries he passed through, a rare example of humanity.
There was disbelief about his young age and it took five years for Gulwali to get refugee status in the UK. From Kent he moved to Bolton where he met a head teacher who believed in him. In conversation with William Crawley after the lecture and taking questions from the audience, Gulwali spoke incredibly fondly about the kindness and engagement of his Bolton foster parents Sean and Karen.
Asked about the current situation at Calais, Gulwali explained that he had recently visited ‘the Jungle’ and summed up the need: “those refugees need warmth and love”. He added: “I have yet to meet a refugee that doesn’t want to go back to their own country”.
“I was born in Afghanistan, it’s not my fault!” he quipped, explaining that those born in the UK can travel freely to 172 countries without a visa. It’s a huge privilege.
He sees hypocrisy in countries like Hungry closing their borders and ignoring their own history. And he questions why rich Arab countries are not taking any refugees from neighbouring Islamic countries.
It’s a remarkable story of the resilience and perseverance of a twelve year old boy who made a journey that no child should have to make. And the story of a young man with a vision for the future.
Gulwali Passarlay’s book The Lightless Sky was published in October. Belfast International Arts Festival continues until Sunday.