Gulwali Passarlay: My Journey as an Afghan Refugee

Gulwali Passarlay, the internationally renowned author of 'The Lightless Sky', opened the hearts and minds of Ellesmere College Year 8 Geography students and deepened their understanding of the plight and resilience of young refugees with an inspiring talk during his visit to the College as part of the Survive & Thrive programme.

Gulwali Passarlay, an Afghan political refugee, came to the UK in 2007 after undertaking an incredible journey where he travelled a total of 7,150 miles through 10 different countries in order to reach safety and escape a war-torn Afghanistan.

Through telling his story to schools and through his book, Gulwali hopes his story will explain why refugees choose to leave their countries and families behind, battle feelings of loneliness, fear and guilt, and will allow people to see them not only as asylum seekers, but individual human beings with incredible stories.

Gulwali's journey began in 2007, following the death of many members of his family in the Afghan war and his parents feared for his safety. They hired an agent to make arrangements for Gulwali to travel to Iran via aeroplane and coach, and from there he caught a lorry and travelled by horseback into Bulgaria, where he was discovered by immigration officials and sent to Turkey. He then embarked on the most harrowing and dangerous part of his journey where he was crammed into an immensely overcrowded boat - only designed to hold 20 people - with no food or water supply for over 2 days.

After surviving the boat journey and arriving in Greece, Gulwali managed to stow away in the engine compartment of a lorry which then drove him into Italy, where he had only a bag between him and the steaming-hot engine! After some time passed, Gulwali could no longer hold on and desperately banged on the walls in order to get the attention of the driver. Fortunately, the driver heard the sounds and despite not being able to speak a word of Greek, Gulwali was able to ask him for some water.

When they arrived in Italy, he was arrested by the police and taken to a children's home, but Gulwali felt fortunate as at least he was being fed and he finally felt safe. However, he was still determined to make it to the UK - so he jumped out of a window and caught a lorry to Germany, and then a coach to Belgium, before walking all the way to France - a 25-hour trek!

Gulwali finally arrived in the French city of Calais and stayed at a United Nations Camp for three months before travelling over to the UK. Gulwali's journey concluded as he landed in Dover in November 2007, where he was able to file an asylum claim. Sometime later, he was reunited with his brother Hazrat, who had fled Afghanistan before Gulwali, and the two lived together briefly before Hazran returned to Afghanistan in order to help the family.

As Gulwali settled in Bolton, he still faced much hardship including racism, rejection and his own feelings of loneliness and guilt. However, Gulwali did emphasise to students that the people who showed him kindness had a much more powerful impact.

Despite this, Gulwali has now done an enormous amount for his local community in Bolton and was one of 8,000 torch-bearers (and arguably, the first Afghan) to carry the Olympic Torch in 2012.

The talk was truly eye-opening for students, and some fantastic questions were asked regarding Gulwali's emotions during the experience and how he was able to remain hopeful. He concluded his talk by explaining how he hopes to end the negative stigma associated with refugees and asylum seekers, and hopes to use his passion towards social change in order to inspire young people into having a more engaged participation in politics and policy-making. He also encouraged students to be kind and never to pass judgement as ultimately, you never know what somebody has been through.

For more information on the Geography Department here at Ellesmere College, please visit: Geography at Ellesmere.

For more information on Leadership & Employability opportunities, please visit: Leadership and Employability.

7th November 2019  Back to News