Seeking Refuge

Passarlay’s book chronicles his journey as a young refugee



“At so many times on my journey to freedom I had felt hopeless, despondent and afraid,” Gulwali Passarlay writes in his book “The Lightless Sky.” “Many times I considered giving up and going home. But at those moments of weakness, one thought had kept me going: my mother sent me away to save my life.”

In 2006, at the young age of 12, Passarlay was told by his mother to leave his native country of Afghanistan; to stay any longer was to play a game of chance with his life. His uncle was a senior commander for the Taliban. After Passarlay’s father and grandfather were killed by U.S. troops for their alleged association with the Taliban, Passarlay and his siblings were placed in an uncomfortable situation and torn between two sides: the U.S. or the Taliban.

To join a side was to put their lives at stake, and not to join a side was just as bad a risk since they could die for being accused of sympathizing with the U.S. or the Taliban. Dissatisfied with both options, and fearful of losing more loved ones, Passarlay’s mother forced her two sons, Hazrat and Gulwali, to leave the country and never come back. Noor, the youngest sibling, was to stay in Afghanistan. Their mother had paid for an underground smuggling business to take the two of them out of Afghanistan. They would leave individually, separated from one another and not seeing each other for an entire year.

Passarlay’s book “The Lightless Sky: A Twelve-Year Old Refugee’s Harrowing Escape from Afghanistan and His Extraordinary Journey Across Half the World,” tells of his 12-month journey from Afghanistan to the U.K.

“I felt a sense of moral obligation and duty to tell my story because we hear so much in the media about the refugee crisis and the challenges and the problems, but we don’t really hear the human story,” Gulwali said. “I wanted to be a human story to the statistical number and a voice for the voiceless.”

Nadene Ghouri, a journalist and Passarlay’s co-writer, reminds readers at the end of the book that many refugees did not get to tell the story that Gulwali told.

“At the time of writing—the end of July 2015—over 2,000 men, women and children are known to have drowned in the Mediterranean this year alone,” Ghouri says in “The Lightless Sky.”

Though Passarlay was finally able to reach the U.K. after such a long journey, settling into the country was just as difficult to adjust to. He constantly felt an urge to run away, and although he eventually reunited with his brother, he still felt alone and unable to relate to others. He attempted suicide three times. With the support of his foster parents and schoolteachers, he was slowly able to adjust and grow comfortable with himself and his situation.

Due to the intense and private personal journey Passarlay made and an embedded Afghan cultural norm to keep things private, Passarlay initially did not think of wanting to write a book. After being in the public eye through his community activism for refugee issues, he saw the importance of telling his story.

“I did a TEDx talk in 2014 in Manchester—I was a student speaker,” Passarlay said. “Someone saw it [from] New York and she said, ‘Gulwali, this is a story worth writing a book about, and I can help you.’ I thought, ‘Well, why not?’”

The woman, Brandi Bowles, was a literary agent and helped Passarlay find a publisher and co-writer.

Passarlay, now just 22, never expected to write a book and wrote it more out of necessity than an eagerness to do so.

“I wish I didn’t have to write it, and the hard part was that there were things in the book that I wanted to forget and move on from,” Passarlay said. “But [I had] to write about it and let the world know.”

“Whenever I talk, I talk about how the Holocaust has happened and we think, ‘How did they make it happen? Where was the world when six million Jews were murdered?’” Passarlay said. “And then, I think in the future, the future generation will ask, ‘How did we let it happen?’ There are 65 million refugees and displaced people, and we are not doing enough about it. We’re not providing them with opportunities and chances and safety. We are not giving them protection and treating them as humans. And that has to change.”