Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The Lightless Sky

Gulwali Passarlay
When we get on Skype, Gulwali’s cheery voice greets me. He is exceptionally cheerful, and it’s contagious. “You know, I had a photo shoot a while ago, and my roommate asked me if I was going to be the next Shah Rukh Khan!” he chuckles. I marvel at the reference – well, of course, it isn’t news that the actor is famous and has a fan-following that transcends borders, but it’s still heartwarming to hear. “I just got saw Dilwale yesterday. There is actually no Indian movie I haven’t seen yet. It is so much fun! I am very fond of Indian movies, especially South Indian movies. My roommate and I watch a lot of South Indian movies because we think that the original Indian movies are the Tamil movies and that everything else copies from them! I know a few Tamil movie actors, I don’t know their names, but I think it’s so much fun. Sometimes I fast forward the movie – I watch half an hour of the film, and if I find it familiar, I skip right to the end!” I chuckle, and offer to give him movie titles from my limited repertoire of already-watched Tamil films, and he says, “Oh please do! Chances are that we may have already watched it, but of course, please do!” And then we sit down to talk about his life, and his inspiring story.

You have quite an inspiring story of survival to your credit. Could you take us through it in a nutshell?
My name is Gulwali Passarlay, and I am Afghan. My name is a mix of three words – Gul, which means flower; wali, which means friend of God and Passarlay which means spring. So I am a mix of three beautiful things! It is a typical Afghan name. I was born in Afghanistan and grew up when the Taliban government was in power, in 1994. My father was a doctor and a freedom fighter and was involved with the Mujahideen. When I was three or four, I moved in with my grandparents in the hillside in eastern Afghanistan. When the US invasion took place in Afghanistan, my life completely changed. Life as I knew it was no longer the same as it was. When the war was at its heights, I was 12. In 2006, after my father was killed, I was caught between the Taliban who wanted to recruit me, and the Americans who wanted to use me. My mother decided to pay for me to be smuggled out of the country to reach safety. My mother paid money for me and my brother to be smuggled out of Afghanistan for safety – and the journey was full of a lot of things. I moved across eight countries – Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, Belgium, Calais in France and the UK. My journey was filled with everything – I endured imprisonment, hunger, cruelty, brutality, loneliness, terror and even nearly drowned while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. I sometimes wonder if it was all worth it because I am so far away from my family. I recently lost my little sister, and my grandmother. I wasn’t there by their side, and I miss them very much. At the same time, I see that there is so much work that is left to be done. I have been safe, definitely, but this safety has had an opportunity cost of its own.

Read our review of The Lightless Sky here
Buy Gulwali's book here
There is so much attention today, for the cause of refugees. But in reality, really, we’ve had the crisis for many years. Why do you think it took the world the death of Aylan Kurdi, to open its eyes?
What you see in today’s context of refugees and migrants coming out is not new. It has been happening for the past decade and more. The story of Aylan Kurdi really exploded the issue because it had now come to our doorstep – we were able to see that the situation was worsening, and there appeared to be no end in sight. Imagine seeing a little boy washed ashore while he was escaping a fate that would have killed him at home! What people know, actually, as I discovered, about these things, is very little. There is not much attention in the global scene about issues like this. I want to be able to effect positive change. 

There is an upswing in countries taking refugees in, but there are all these restricted numbers and quotas of people they can and are willing to take in. What do you think of it?
One in ten refugees are in Europe. The ten top countries that take refugees are developing countries like Pakistan, Jordan and Lebanese. Lebanon is a small country with one in four people being a Syrian Refugee. Germany has taken more asylum applications than Britain has done in the last couple of years. It is really hard for refugees. I was disappointed by the response before, but now, with the Welcome March in London – where ordinary people welcomed the refugees – that has changed. It is beautiful to see the compassion. Syrians, before the war, never left home in droves – Syria in fact was home for refugees in the region. If there are over a million and counting refugees coming in from Syria, that should really tell you something about how bad the situation is, there.

If you had an idea in mind to address the situation of refugees, given the amount of political
rhetoric and conversation around the issue, what would it be?
It shouldn’t be a political issue. It is a humanitarian issue. It is important to deal with this compassionately. We shouldn’t wash our hands off the crisis, and we should really do it out of compassion and care. We’ve stood by a lot of issues in Libya, in Iraq, in Afghanistan and now in Syria, and so many more things. We should do a lot for people all over the world – no one likes to leave their countries, homes and families. We should take as many refugees as we can and we should.

Do you yearn to go home? What are your thoughts about your future?
I am yet to meet a refugee who doesn’t want to go home. Your home is always your home, no matter what, and that is what Afghanistan is for me. I want to be the President of Afghanistan someday – I don’t care about the designation – I just want to be in a position of leadership to appropriately influence policy and legislation, in a way that can help people suitably and better. I miss Afghanistan. Britain is my second home, and I love Britain, but my heart definitely is with Afghanistan. My hardships and struggles have made me a better person. If I had to make the journey I once did again, I wouldn’t be able to. But having experienced all that I did, I learned what refugees suffer. Being born Afghan makes me proud – it’s not my fault that I was born Afghan, and I am proud of it. I have learned a lot, and I saw the world from outside. I feel like I am a global citizen. I hope to go back – when I do all my political activism, I know that I want to be positive, and be in a position to bring peace and expertise. All that I am learning is certainly helping me. I hope, in 2030, to contend elections.

You’ve written your story in the form of a book, The Lightless Journey. What do you hope to achieve with the book?
What I precisely want to do is to lend a human voice to the situation that refugees face. I want to give the refugee crisis a human face and a human voice. It is appalling how many instances of violations are happening, and how many refugees are being forced out of their houses. There is a lack of information. I wrote the Lightless Journey to talk about suffering and give it a human face. “To risk my life had to mean something. Otherwise what was it all for?”