Gulwali Passarlay’s tortuous journey aged 12 as a refugee escaping Afghanistan #BelFest

Gulwali PassarlayAmnesty 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.

William GulwaliNow in the third year of a social science and politics degree in Manchester he plans to gather up experience with the intention of returning to Afghanistan.

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.

Gulwali Pssarlay The Lightless Sky bookcoverHe 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.

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  • Dan

    Meanwhile, at the Slovenian border, more Afghan ‘refugees’ are fighting Iraqi and Syrian ‘refugees’ all determined to force their way further into Europe.

  • Greenflag 2

    ” And he questions why rich Arab countries are not taking any refugees from neighbouring Islamic countries.”

    A good question that one never hears being asked by European or American or Russian government leaders . But then the export of arms and advanced weaponry and systems to those countries might be threatened . . And no other market for the arms manufacturers is as lucrative as the Middle East .

  • Paddy Reilly

    GP when he entered Iran was a refugee, perhaps also when he entered Turkey.

    But when he migrated first to Greece, then to Italy, France and England he became a Benefits seeker. He obviously ended up in the country which provided the best.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    We need to take a LOT more refugees. We’ll be worse off economically in the long run and as a society if we don’t – refugees in absorbable numbers (which are tens of thousands more than Teresa May will allow) are a boon to British society in the long run and we need to get over any short term inconvenience to make it happen.

    I do think the richer Arab countries have big questions to answer here though. And some of our European neighbours. But with the Tories in charge, we have lost a lot of moral authority as a nation on this issue. We still have some; but they will squander it if we let them. They need to change tack massively and accept more refugees.

  • Jim M

    I’m not saying we have to let in limitless numbers of refugees, but would you have done differently in his position? Or would you condemn a twelve year old boy for looking out for his own interests?

  • Paddy Reilly

    Water seeks out the lowest level, and Asylum Seekers the highest benefits.

    But what this means is that British Residence is being sold by those who do not own it, a group of people smugglers in Afghanistan. Obviously, if one party is successful, then another will try it, until, eventually, the U.K. is held to have responsibility for all the orphans in the world. Somewhere along the line however, popular opinion, even among the very, very stupid, will realise that this is untenable and demand that it stops. It is easier to put the brakes on now than it will be in the future.

  • Greenflag 2

    ‘will realise that this is untenable and demand that it stops. It is easier to put the brakes on now than it will be in the future.’

    Enoch Powell will rise again and sink again . Capital rules until it’s head is cut off and then it restitches it back on and returns with a new but the same personality and inclination.

  • nadene ghouri

    HI – I am Gulwali’s co-writer. Just to clarify. He has never received benefits. It was not possible for him to claim asylum in any other country, they threw him in prison in Iran and he was only 12! Please read the book because it will clear up a lot of misconceptions about the journey and why refugees keep moving. The sad reality is there no properly joined up international system. You will also see how much he has given back to the UK since getting here.

  • nadene ghouri

    Yes and Germany will have a massive economic advantage in years to come because they have accepted so many refugees.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Yes, it’s the reason Merkel has been as bold as she has been in accepting large numbers. Germany needs younger working age people, it has an ageing crisis looming. Could be us soon too.

  • nadene ghouri

    Yes it will be us. It’s pure economics. We need numbers. And Syrians are particularly educated, they are also from a secular society so will easily adapt. She’s made a smart move.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    yes, I hope though she hasn’t gone too far ahead of the German people on this. Important it’s done at a rate at which people can be absorbed and sitting populations get used to the idea. Quick, big change is the enemy of good immigration policy, I think. That’s what causes the backlash. A well-managed stream is so much better. Though I accept it’s difficult in the case of Syria now.

  • Greenflag 2

    Could be ? The rich have money -the poor have children .In western society up to the mid seventies anyway . Then the poor stopped having too many kids and became better off and more educated and now there are no kids or not enough to replace the population of working age when the older generation dies off . Ergo immigration . Germany , France , the UK , the USA Italy etc are all in the same boat . Japan is very ethnocentric despite it’s westernisation . Thus a rapidly declining population etc .

  • Greenflag 2

    Indeed but who will she thank ? Assad for hanging on to power or Isis ? or the US/UK foreign policy disaster in the Middle East ?. Good luck to her .

  • Greenflag 2

    Some advantage but not massive . The number of refugees as of now will hardly make a dent in the decline of a population of 83 million which is estimated to decline to 60 million approx by the end of this century .

  • Paddy Reilly

    Well obviously a 12 year old cannot receive monetary welfare benefits, but he moved to the country which provided him with the best life benefit, which meant political asylum and fostering (rather than the Italian children’s home).

    The greatest benefit which many migrants seek is not the dole, it is that of starting work immediately and importing one’s relatives: Sweden is sought out for this, even in preference to Germany.

    As Afghanistan is only slightly closer to England than India, you will appreciate that the UK cannot take responsibility for all orphaned or needy children in this zone.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Australia is happy to give visas to migrants with something to contribute, but strictly excludes self styled refugees: and wisely so.

    It is a matter of giving consent: a woman may advertise for a husband, but that does not mean she wants to be gang-raped every weekend.

    If these migrants were to seek visas before heading to Germany, they could travel cheaply by bus or chartered plane, instead of giving to people smugglers the whole of their capital, which they could have used to set up market stalls when they arrive.

  • Paddy Reilly

    Yes, Capital always gets its way. But, call me unobservant if you like, but I have totally failed to notice the demand for extra labour from employers in the current climate. In fact, it seems to me that there is a dearth rather than a surplus of vacancies in the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland at this precise moment. So it’s rather like opening up shop and finding 20 clamorous and riotous job seekers when you don’t know if you’ll make enough to keep paying the one man you already employ.

  • Greenflag 2

    True enough PR for large parts of the UK including NI but not so true for Germany . Poland is not the reservoir for cheap labour that the German economy thought it would be . Thousands of German companies have expanded into Poland and there are 5,000 German companies in China developing niche markets at this time .

  • Paddy Reilly

    Indeed: but it might help to exercise a little discrimination in who you take from the Muslim world. There are plenty of women trying to escape from arranged marriages, secularists and gays under sentence of death. There are converts to Christianity, there are native Christians, there are Zarathustrians, Mandaeans, Baha’is and Yazidis. Then there are kinds of Mohammadans who are so unpopular with the others that they are virtually under sentence of death already: Alevis, Alawis, Ahmadis and possibly Ismaelis. Instead these poor people are shouldered aside in favour of knife wielding Salafis, the worst possible people to take in.

    Actually, a lot of so-called ‘Muslims’ in England are actually Ahmadis: England is now where their Caliph resides. They have renounced jihad as a principle. Equally, many of the Syrian refugees would be Ismaelis. So the danger is not as great as it is made out.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    With regards to bolstering the population, do we not require a certain number of women of child bearing age to make this so?

    From what I can see the majority of the migrants/refugees appear to be young men.(on the news most close ups are of mothers with children but the panned-out shots are of groups of men).

    Now, unless the countries that they are heading to have excesses of single women of child bearing age then how do they stem the long term population decline?

    And IF Germany has 500 000 – 800 000 single women of child bearing age as well as loads of jobs then why the Dickens didn’t they tell Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece this when the GFC kicked in?

    “Right, we’ll lend ye loads of money but in order to whittle down your benefits expenditure send your young men over here to the land of jobs, single women and good beer. Wahey!!!!”

  • Greenflag 2

    Exercising discrimination when hundreds of thousands of people are on the move is easier said than done . You know more than I about the differences between Salafis and Ahmadis . I’d guess that at Slovenian borders Salafis would desist from their knife wielding custom. Americans tend not to carry guns when entering Canada . There are 250 million ‘refugees’ on the planet. Only China , India and the USA have more people than the world has refugees . .