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

by JULIE POUCHER HARBIN, EDITOR, ISLAMiCommentary on FEBRUARY 29, 2016: 

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. Continue reading