21-year-old university student and former Afghan refugee, Gulwali Passarlay,speaks to Duke undergrads. photo by Catherine Angst
21-year-old university student and former Afghan refugee, Gulwali Passarlay,speaks to Duke undergrads. photo by Catherine Angst


51ffhcH8cRL._SX332_BO1,204,203,200_“Before I died, I contemplated how drowning would feel. It was clear to me now; this was how I would go: away from my mother’s warmth, my father’s strength, and my family’s love. The white waves were going to devour me, swallow me whole in their terrifying jaws, and cast my young body aside to drift down into the cold black depths,” Gulwali Passarlay wrote in the prologue to “The Lightless Sky: A Twelve-Year-Old Refugee’s Harrowing Escape from Afghanistan and His Extraordinary Journey Across Half the World.” (HarperOne, 2016)

At the age of 12 Gulwali was sent away from his rural Afghanistan home by his mother who paid a smuggling agent at $8,000, in installments, to get him safely to Italy. “However bad it gets,” the mother told her son. “Don’t come back.” Ten months into his journey, he nearly drowned (described above) in an overcrowded boat on his way to Greece. He’s now a man in his third year at the University of Manchester in the UK — alive to tell the tale of his year-long 12,500-mile perilous journey, which he likened to “a game of Chutes and Ladders” through Pakistan; Iran (twice); Turkey (twice); Bulgaria; Greece; Italy; France (twice); Belgium, Germany, and finally the UK.

While the trip took place back in 2006-2007, his book, written with Nadene Ghouri, is an instructive lens through which to view the current refugee crisis and the complicated human smuggling and trafficking networks that have refugees and migrants using air, rail, cars, trucks, boats, and their own tired feet, across rivers and seas and over mountains — to get them to a better life.

Last month Gulwali spoke via Skype for nearly an hour with more than a dozen Duke University undergraduate students enrolled in the Refugee Lives: Violence, Culture and Identity class, co-taught by professors miriam cooke, Maha Houssami, and Nancy Kalow.

The 21-year-old politics and philosophy major answered questions and shared stories with his contemporaries about his experiences in safe-houses, prisons/detention centers and refugee camps; the dozens of unscrupulous (and a few kind) agents, smugglers, and guides he encountered; and the friends and enemies he made along the way.

He constantly feared he’d be sent backwards.

“Every country I went to they would literally humiliate me and treat me without any respect and dignity. Forget treating me as a child, they didn’t even treat me as a human. So that’s why there was a back and forth and so it took me a good 10 months before I crossed the Mediterranean towards western Europe,” he told the class. “This is because I spent a week in prison in Bulgaria, spent two weeks in Istanbul prison and I spent a week or so in a prison in Iran, so prison became my second home, which was not a nice thing. Prison wasn’t a nice place to be in especially if you are an undocumented refugee or illegal migrant. It was full of hardship I’d say it was a hellish journey.”

He still has nightmares. Near constant images in the news of overcrowded boats sinking in the seas between Turkey and Greece rattle him. As do reports of terrorist attacks and violence in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

“Every time I watch news it resonates; it brings back memories. It keeps me awake,” he said.

According to the United Nations Refugee agency (UNHCR), more than one million refugees and migrants fled to Europe by sea (mainly to Greece and Italy) in 2015 alone. Of these more than 3,700 went missing, believed drowned. Recent figures from UNHCR also estimate that a further 34,000 crossed from Turkey into Bulgaria and Greece by land last year. While half of those crossing the Mediterranean last year were Syrians, Afghans accounted for 20 per cent.

Half of Afghanistan’s population is under the age of 27, and of the more than three million Afghans who are refugees, the majority of them are young people leaving because they are unsafe there.

Gulwali explained that development and infrastructure improvements in Afghanistan are limited to areas controlled by the government, but most of Afghanistan is not under government control. In many places there is not enough security, he said, for children to attend school.

“What the Taleban has been doing, it’s really getting worse,” he said. And, he added that ISIS and its supporters have taken over in half of his home province, Nangarhar, where they are “training kids from a very young age in their violent and extreme ideology.”

“When those kids grow up they will obviously become extremists and become fundamentalists. And that’s a huge concern,” he said.

Even after the involvement of 50 countries, 50,000 troops and billions of dollars spent in Afghanistan, a solution seems elusive.


Following the Taleban regime’s collapse in 2001 with the U.S. invasion, Gulwali’s nuclear family was forced to move from place to place because of their strong connection to the group. Gulwali’s uncle was a Taleban commander.

While he doesn’t make excuses for the horrible things the Taleban did back then, Gulwali wrote that “particularly for his family, the rise of the ultra-conservative Taleban was a good thing.” His family was religiously and culturally conservative and lived by the strict ethical code of Pashtunwali.

He told the students that the Taleban had “restored peace and stability and security, even with an iron stick,” when they came to power in 1996, to a “lawless” country suffering from a civil war in which more than three million people lost their lives. (Unsafe for his grandparents in Afghanistan, his parents had met and married in a refugee camp in Peshawar, Pakistan.)

Three years into the occupation of Afghanistan by coalition soldiers, five of Gulwali’s relatives were killed, including his father and grandfather, in a battle with U.S. soldiers who had raided the family home after an attack on a US base that left several dead. Gulwali said that following their deaths, both Taleban fighters and US and Afghan troops would often visit the house.  There was equal pressure by the Taleban to take revenge and join their ranks and pressure by US and Afghan troops to turn over information they suspected that the family had about Taleban plans. His mother felt he and his older brother Hazrat were caught between two dangerous options — they were trying to please both sides — which is why she paid to send them both away.

He said he thought about joining the Taleban.

“Even when I had to leave home it wasn’t a thing of honor, it was a shameful thing to do for me somebody because I saw myself as the man of the house even though I was a young age and my job was to protect my mother, my family, and my siblings, and not to escape,” he told the students. “So it’s hard for me. Now you understand the conflicting objectives. And I say my mother saved me but she also lost me. I’m a completely different person (now).”

On the Road

Gulwali described to the class that the majority of agents, smugglers, and guides as “pretty heartless people” who saw him and his fellow refugees “as a commodity.” He referred to their operation “organized crime.”

The book is filled with details of unsanitary, overcrowded transportation and living conditions; exhaustion and near starvation; and being treated and managed like animals. But there were also some bright spots.

Referring to an Afghan saying that “the five fingers of the hands are not the same,” he told the students that the agents, smugglers and guides weren’t all bad.

“There were others who were very kind. The guy who helped me cross from Iran to Turkey the second time gave me his horse and had the six or seven of us as a guest in his home,” Gulwali said. “Some of the kind of people who were below, who were ordinary people, they were nicer than the ones at the top who were making the money.”

He explained how he made 6-8 friends who were with him on the journey off and on. They made life more tolerable, even though everyone was looking out for their own safety: “We would support one another. But again we could not rely on somebody completely because we would be separated, we could be arrested… I lost friends along the way. But I gained more friends,” he said. “We were all in the same boat — not only the same boat through the Mediterranean about to be sunk — but also the same boat in the sense of the journey. We all had the same struggle and the same fears and the same problems.”

There were also charitable acts in unexpected places, and charitable groups who helped him.

At the detention center in Greece where he was transferred after his overcrowded boat arrived from Turkey, he was allowed to commemorate Ramadan. The warden agreed to let them fast and have their meal at night.

“I was greatly touched by this,” Gulwali wrote in the book. “Greece isn’t a Muslim country, and even though we were in a detention center, the staff went out of their way to make us comfortable. It was very kind.”

He wrote that throughout his journey, his Islamic faith was often a comfort to him.

In Italy, police brought him to a children’s home run by kind young Westernized Italians, where he got a room, clothes and meals, and stayed for a few weeks before running away.

In a Paris park, Parisian charity workers served refugees and migrants hot stew for dinner and black tea and bread for breakfast, Gulwali wrote, while other Parisians “shied away from us in horror.”

At the large refugee and migrant encampment in the vicinity of the port of Calais in France, nicknamed The Jungle, some charities run shelters that would provide food, a visit with a doctor, a shower, new clothes. And French and British protestors would act as human shields between migrants and the police — and demand on loudspeakers that police “stop harassing” the migrants. Sometimes they brought food, and hugs. Sometimes a police officer would take pity on him and give him food.

“I lived in the same clothes or weeks at a time. I wore them until they were filthy rags – or until they became so infested with fleas and lice I couldn’t stand it anymore,” Gulwali wrote in the book. “Fortunately, the charities that ran the food places were often giving away secondhand clothes. That became my definition of a good day – a hot meal, some new clothes, a visit to the doctor, and an illicit shower from which I emerged clean and dressed. I hated the filth. It gave me some small pleasure to throw my old rags on the fire, and watch as the bugs popped in the flames.”

He also wrote that “the humiliation was hard to bear.”

“Here in The Jungle we were barely human. We were the beasts that gave this place its name,” he wrote. “It wasn’t my fault I wasn’t born in Europe. My home was a war zone — did that somehow make me less human?”

Gulwali spent weeks trying to stow-away on a truck to the UK; describing his daily life as a “perverse game … of cat and mouse with the police.”

On one such attempt he was smuggled onto a truck with chemical powder that burned his face so badly that he had to be hospitalized. Many times he almost gave up.

“Life only has value as long as you believe it is worth living. I was no longer sure. I was becoming detached from my surroundings. Nothing mattered anymore. The instinct to survive is strong, but when survival is all that there is, you are left with the obvious question: “Why go on?” My life was a living nightmare,” he wrote. “We kept trying trucks. The routine was the same. Break in, get caught, walk miles home.”


He eventually got to Britain in the back of a refrigerator truck.

He told the students that it was his hundredth attempt from Calais. The first thing he did when he got to the UK was claim asylum, then he was handed over to social services. They didn’t initially believe his age or nationality and for five years no decision was made vis a vis official refugee status.

They allowed him asylum seeker status, but when that expired they wanted to send him back to Afghanistan. He told the class that he was “lucky to convince them that I deserve a chance to be here and I should be given protection under international law.” It wasn’t until two years ago that he received refugee status, and said that it will take him another five years to get citizenship in Britain.

“Even now if they deem me not a positive thing to the public good, like if I commit a crime or do something really bad, they could send me back to Afghanistan,” he said explaining that his refugee status is more of a privilege than a right.

After spending a troublesome period in a children’s home in the UK, and then in an apartment — finally re-connecting with the brother he’d gotten separated from during the early part of their journey from Pakistan to Iran — he went to live with a foster family in Bolton near Manchester, UK.

“They were wonderful people. I had warmth, I had love. I had guidance and support. It was great … I try (to visit) at least once a month for dinner,” he told the students. “This was later on in my stage of the journey but still it was a very good experience, it helped me integrate better into society and continue with my activism and advocacy work.”

He also had some good teachers who advocated for him and helped him with his studies and the language barrier issues.


Gulwali has been actively engaged and involved with politics: representing youth organizations, working with the British Youth Council and the UK Youth Parliament and about 15-20 different commissions and groups trying to influence policymakers “and make change happen.”

“When you get to the destination you want to go, your problem doesn’t necessarily get over. I’d say it’s the beginning of the end. The struggle continues,” he said.  “So I’ve been doing everything I can to give back to society and political activism.”

Part of his activism is in advocating for refugees making dangerous journeys today.

In a question posed by a student about Europe’s attitudes toward Syrian refugees, Gulwali pointed out that Germany took in more than a million total asylum applications in 2015; more than Britain has taken over the past 10 years.  (He also noted that Germany is more likely to take in Syrians then Afghans; perhaps because Syrians tend to be more educated.)

He said that more help needs to be given to other countries hosting refugees, like Lebanon where one in four of its population are Syrian refugees.

One student noted how anti-refugee sentiments have gained momentum in recent months in Europe and America. She asked him his reaction.

“Politicians argue we can’t take refugees, we can’t take everyone. We can’t take everyone but at least we can take some. We can take a few. That will help,” Gulwali said.

Commending the Duke students for their interest in refugee policy, he said that activism, campaigning, and advocacy work on behalf of refugees is particularly needed now, and that refugees should be seen as a resource not as a burden.

“I’m glad that you guys are passionate and you people have the enthusiasm and that you have the compassion and humanity and I think that’s great,” he said. “We need more young people to have the same mindset rather than being racist and discriminatory.”

Gulwali said that hearing the way Donald Trump and some of the other presidential candidates have connected refugees with terrorism makes him “shiver.”

“In the US… people die from all sort of things especially gun violence,“ he said. “I think associating refugees with terrorism and terrorists is the biggest insult that you can ever say because they are actually fleeing the same terrorism that we are trying to fight. And yes you have to be cautious you have to do the screening properly, you have to do the investigation, you have to be very careful when you determine whether to take in people, which people to take in. We should follow all the security procedures but not have this blame game saying some refugees are dangerous. They have seen enough trauma. They have seen enough conflicts, enough wars.”

He cautioned: “Already in the West, in the world, the US reputation is declining in a sense of its humanitarian values, what it stands for… This country of yours is built on immigrants and immigration.”

A Future

Gulwali said he’s become more pragmatic, more diplomatic, as he’s aged. He used to be really angry. And he said it’s been hard to convince himself that there’s not much he can do right now “other than raise my voice and speak up and hope that things will change and things will get better.”

There’s five things that Gulwali is especially proud of: “I carried the Olympic torch in 2012, one of the 8000 torch bearers. Went into the University of Manchester which I never thought would happen… then got to speak at TedEx Manchester… Other than that, to write the book and to have my school after 4 years to give an award after me, which is called the ‘Gulwali Passarlay award for overcoming adversity’.”

“We are very fortunate. You guys sitting in that room, in that classroom, you guys are very lucky and fortunate to be safe and secure and to have the piece of mind. And unfortunately there are a lot of people in the world, millions of refugees, 60 million, and displaced people who all they want is safety, all they want is security. So we need to realize and appreciate the opportunities and the good things we have in life, particularly safety and security.”

What’s next for this energetic and now near-native English speaker ?

Gulwali said he would like to perhaps work for the United Nations refugee agency (UNCHR) and get more experience in governance and diplomacy. And he hopes to return to his home country one day and get involved in government – as an ambassador, minister or parliamentarian, if not the country’s president. He hasn’t seen his mother and the rest of the family since he left.

“Title and position doesn’t matter, as long as I’m able to make a positive change,” he said.




“The Refugee Lives: Violence, Culture and Identity” class examines how writers, artists, and filmmakers represent the ways in which Afghans, Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis, Sudanese and Egyptians become refugees and their adaptation strategies to new, harsh circumstances both in and outside the Arab world. The course discusses government and non-governmental organizations that have worked with Arab refugees since 1948 and explores the role played by refugees in constructing national identity and consciousness. Refugee Lives is cross listed in the department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies and the Center for Documentary Studies.


ISLAMiCommentary is a public scholarship forum that engages scholars, journalists, policymakers, advocates and artists in their fields of expertise. It is a key component of the Transcultural Islam Project; an initiative managed out of the Duke Islamic Studies Center in partnership with the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East and Muslim Civilizations (UNC-Chapel Hill). This article was made possible (in part) by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author(s).

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