Tag Archives: illegal immigration

A Lightless Sky

I have only half an understanding of the routes that I have traveled; and then there are some moments that are etched in my mind forever. These are the ones I know I will never forget. – Gulwalhi Passarlay, Author of Lightless Sky

Gulwalhi Passarlay was born in 1994. His early childhood, as a son of the local doctor and the grandson of a nomadic sheepherder, was remarkably filled with love and strengthened by a strong connection to his Islamic faith. Beginning at four-years-old, he spent summers high in the mountains with his beloved grandfather, living a subsistence lifestyle, learning life and survival lessons while tending the flock; life skills that undoubtedly helped him a few years later. Inside his young mind he thought life was just about perfect. As do most of us at that tender age in a self-centered universe.

When he was around seven-years-old, the United States was attacked and retaliated against Afghanistan for harboring Osama Bin Laden. At the time of the invasion, his Uncle Lala, was a high ranking Taliban secret officer. The Passarlay family’s earlier association with the mujahideen during the recent war with Russian brought the Americans to Gulwalhi’s home suspecting stored weapons. Tragically, the American raid left his father and grandfather dead.

By 2006, Gulwalhi, now twelve-years-old, and his thirteen-year-old brother, Hazrat, were caught in an untenable position – the Taliban wanted them as soldiers or martyrs and the Americans wanted them as spies. Facing a no-win situation, Gulwalhi’s mother feared for the lives of her sons. She made the heartbreaking decision to send them away to hopefully save their lives. Scraping funds from the extended family, she paid a network of human smugglers to deliver the boys, together, to safety in Europe for a better life.

The boys were sad to leave but somewhat excited about the journey. The promised two week journey began with deception. The boys were immediately separated.  Gulwahli found himself among streams of constantly changing refugees, mostly older adult men, some who shielded and protected him as best they could under the circumstances.

The actual journey took the heartbroken and terrified Gulwalhi a harrowing year through nine different countries. He suffered torture and imprisonment three times in adult prisons  – Iraq, Bulgaria, and Turkey, and with the wiles of the innocent and dumb luck, escaped three times. He, incredibly, survived each leg of the journey, barely, suffering physically from starvation, dehydration, hypothermia, heat exhaustion, and a myriad of unimaginable conditions laced with beatings, mental cruelty, and  constant threat of danger. The refugees seen only a paycheck and viewed as chattel – subhuman.

He was mentally and emotionally burdened with loneliness, terror, and depression; attempting suicide more than once. He traveled by car, lorry, train, plane, boat, horse, bus and long painful foot marches; passed along from one unscrupulous underground agent to the next – each assuring these refugees that their next leg of the trip is guaranteed.  Finally reaching England, Gulwalhi discovered that even in the perceived promised land nothing is guaranteed.

Guaranteed. That word again. In my experience, nothing on this journey was ever guaranteed.

Imagine yourself as twelve-years-old. Your family shattered by war yet you are still surrounded and loved by what remains of your culture and family. Abruptly you find yourself thrust onto an airplane among strangers with total control over your life.

Gulwalhi’s story, is told from memories of his stolen childhood. It is a hard read and sometimes from the safety of my “taken-for-granted” life I wanted things to move along more quickly. Then, I would remember this was an unaccompanied child thrust in a world completely foreign to him. How did he survive when so many of adult refugee men that cycled in and out of his journey did not? Those life skills learned in the mountains with his grandfather gave him a heads-up. In a recent British video interview, he stated that in today’s world, the same journey would not be successful. As children, we all feel immortal, take chances, make poor choices, and face dangers with innocence.

He was a plucky daredevil who stayed true to his Islamic faith yet realized that the world is not one-size-fits all. By the time he reached England he had matured and recognized the need to open his heart and mind to the diversity of world cultures and customs.

His greatest reason for telling his story is to humanize the plights of those willing to face death in the unknown journey rather than stay in a country where is death was certain. The world has changed- and not for the better. More and more people struggle to stay alive, chancing death every day to live in safety.

The world has changed- and not for the better. More and more people struggle to stay alive, chancing death every day to live in safety. He wants to the world to open their hearts and minds to see that most, certainly not all, refugees are looking for a hand-up not a handout. He realizes the pressures placed on countries where refugees are flocking to for help are struggling to handle the influx. He just wants the refugees to seen human and treated humanely while in transition.

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The Weight of Shadows

THE Weight of Shadows cover

The Weight of Shadows: A Memoir of Immigration & Displacement

by José Orduña
Beacon Press | 2016
ARC e-Reader copy
Paperback: 240 pages (978-0-8070-7402-2)
Genre: Adult/Memoir/Immigration/Latin America


An advance reader copy was provided by Beacon Press through
  in exchange for my honest opinion.


“This is America.

Each passage and inscription of a human being as “illegal” is a reiteration.
We are in the zone where justice reaches its vanishing point,
sheds its veneer, and reveals itself fully as punishment.”

José Orduña

José Orduña was born in Veracruz, Mexico.  His mother, Yoli, was a semester from graduating with a degree in agronomy when she found out she was pregnant. Unmarried, Yoli was forced to quit school and summarily disowned by her parents.  Martin Orduña , José’s father and his parents gave her a home.  After they married, Martin left his wife and new baby with his parents while he joined his Aunt Hilda in Chicago hoping to find work. When José was 2-years old his mother and he joined Martin entering the United States on a tourist visa.

Yoli and Martin struggled to make a life for themselves and José in the US.  Limited by legalities and language, lived in shadows; caught between two worlds.  Yearning for Mexico but needing the US for for a life.  Fearful of ignoring the need for “papers” and fearful of living under the radar just one small mistake from the unimaginable without them. 

José as a child was aware there was tension in the home but growing up “American” he really didn’t grasp the dangers facing his family.  He knew that he wasn’t one of “them” facing bullying and discrimination in the community and school but he couldn’t remember any other life. Their labor class income limited their options, but nonetheless, his parents were determined to make a better life for their child and they did the very best they could for him.

It must have taken extreme courage for Martin and Yoli to begin the process of obtaining their “papers.”  Once they step out in the open and into the system they would be exposed as “undocumented” and subject to the arbitrary whims of every “politically correct authority”.  The smallest misstep- running a stop sign, failing to signal a turn, anger a neighbor – could result in displacement.    

Orduña relates his life’s story with a sharp edge in The Weight of Shadows .  Every sentence conjures a raw emotion.  He holds nothing back in explaining his ambivalence at having to “earn” his right to be here; a place he feels he already had a right to be.

He lays his story and the story of friends and relatives all out straight with every wart and wrinkle exposed. The hypocritical history of immigration into the US is laid open across the path of every “undocumented alien”.  An immigration system so unwieldy, unpredictable and arbitrary that is often safer to just stay in the background.

It’s a tough story to read.  Every page sizzles with his unrestrained emotion.  The descriptions of the desert crossings, the inhumane treatment of detainees, the despair, the fear, the hunger, the pain, and the desperation. You cringe at what you know to be the truth that an employer would take advantage of an undocumented status to pay inadequate salaries or withhold time off with the threat of job loss.

“We’ve been used as disposable, malleable bodies that can be drawn in and purged according to labor demands and cyclical xenophobic trends.”  

“It is difficult to establish happiness and a necessary sense of communion with members of a society that allow for you, in actuality and in representation , the space of a maid, a nanny, a janitor, a day laborer, or a landscaper, and nothing else, and who barely meet your eye.”

And in the end, following the rules, José Orduña was sworn  in as a naturalized United States citizen in July of 2011.  It is not a day to celebrate.  The piece of paper just makes him legal.

He says, “I feel a[n]…ambivalence about being here [at the ceremony]…because being here doesn’t feel like a celebration or an accomplishment.  It’s something of a relief, of course, but it also feels like acquiescence – like I’m tacitly agreeing that this is necessary and legitimate…I am one of the ‘good ones’ and that I have ‘done it the right way’.

At times I didn’t think I could read on…The use of Spanish in the beginning without context felt purposeful.  The described trip to the Philippines was unnecessary and salacious.  But, as a debut work, it’s a truthful chronicle voiced by one who knows too well what it means to be an “illegal alien”.  There is no doubt Orduña’s voice will be heard again and again.


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