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.