Newly arrived to the UK as an Asylum Seeker.

This is a piece I wrote for the Durham Book Festival and New Writing North, about my experiences of early days in the Britain as UASC. #TheLightlessSky

The arrival

Imagine being trapped inside a refrigerator with the light on. But knowing that the door behind you is locked and sealed.  There is no way out unless someone comes to open it from the other side. Pleading for help, banging fists, shouting, screaming would all be useless because there is no way a small human voice could be heard within a unit sealed as tightly as a coffin and potentially as cold as ice.

That was me aged 13, a child refugee.

I was huddled among boxes of bananas, hidden in the back of a refrigerated Lorry, desperately trying to reach England. I had been on a perilous journey to safety for one year, during which time I had been hungry, scared for my life, beaten by police and border guards, imprisoned and had spent just over a month living in filthy conditions in the so-called Calais jungle.  As I climbed into that Lorry I knew the risks I was taking but by this point I was too depressed to care.  I just knew I couldn’t spend another night in Calais in the cold, wet filthy conditions of the camp, where rats and cockroaches ran over our heads as we tried to sleep on beds of cardboard.

Getting into that Lorry was a deliberate act of Russian roulette. I would either make it to England. Or I would die. Either way I would be out of the cess pit of human misery and desperation that was the jungle.

The year before I had fled my home of Afghanistan because my life was at risk. My Mother paid people traffickers to take myself and my brother to safety. We had no idea where safety was, only that we were leaving our home. As I hugged my mother goodbye she whispered to me to never come back, however bad it got. On the second day of the journey the traffickers separated me from my brother and that’s when my real-life version of snakes and ladders began, both to find a safe place to call home and to find my brother.  I travelled through nine countries, never really knowing if the next day might be my last or if I would find the refuge I sought.

So, when the driver opened the door of the lorry and I realised I was in England, I could have jumped for joy. Little did I understand that the hardest part of the journey about to begin.

Lost in the system

I was taken into police custody and placed in a cell for the next 24 hours.  Custody was not new to me.  I had already been imprisoned Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, France – simply for being a refugee. People often ask why asylum seekers don’t claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, but how? I told every official I met in every country I travelled in that I was 12 years old yet I was still arrested, deported and treated like a criminal –  often I was beaten too.

The only country that did treat me as a child and welcomed me was Italy, where I was taken to a children’s home.  I was grateful for the kindness they showed me, but by I’d been on the road for almost 11 months and my mental state was in a bad way. There was no translator in my language of Pashtu and I couldn’t understand what they were trying to say to me, which left me confused and frustrated.  I had also recently discovered via a smuggler that my lost brother was alive and on his way to Britain.  All I could think about was trying to find him.  If it hadn’t been for that I would have been so grateful to stay in Italy and in the home, but I didn’t have the language to explain any of this.   So, after two weeks there I jumped from my third-floor room, made my way to Rome and from there to France and Calais and now England. In my childlike naivety, I hoped it would be only a matter of hours before I was reunited with my brother.

Next day the police handed me over to immigration. I saw the sign outside the Dover Immigration Removals Centre and panicked. Would they send me back? I was given a ticket with a number on it and told to sit in a waiting room. It was full of hopeless scared faces from all over the world. There was a free coffee machine. I was so hungry and thirsty that I drank cup after cup until I almost made myself sick.

I was photographed, and asked to confirm my personal details – name, nationality and date of birth. At that time, my face was very badly scarred from an earlier failed attempt to climb into a truck full of chemicals in Calais. They asked me questions about that. Then I was sent back to wait.   Several hours my number was called and I went into another room where a man asked me if I wanted to claim asylum. I said yes. I answered his long list of questions as best I could but I had been awake and hadn’t eaten for over 24 hours. I hadn’t really slept properly since the Italian children’s home six weeks earlier. I asked the man if he could help find my brother. He laughed and asked me if I knew there were 60 million in this country.

I was handed over to social services and taken to a nearby hotel. That evening I walked the cliffs of Dover, it was raining and cold but finally I could taste freedom. I could see Calais on the horizon and felt so sad for the poor souls still stuck there.

After 10 days, I was taken to Folkestone in Kent for a social services age assessment. There were five officials sitting around the table. I didn’t realise that these people would define my future. I was questioned for hours – about my family, my journey, my education and asked to name streets in my home city of Jalalabad.  At the end, I was given a piece of paper. It had my name on it but they’d spelt it wrong, even though they had the ID card the Home Office ID had given me in front of them.

They told me the panel did not believe I was 13 and that I was in fact 16 and a half.  It was the strangest thing, having the essence of my identity challenged. They were calling me a liar. Nothing I told them mattered, they’d made up their mind beforehand.  I was so upset I ripped the piece of paper up and threw it at them, then I started to cry. I had imagined the UK to be a place of justice and humanity. A place where I would be treated fairly, but this wasn’t that. There is nothing worse in life than not being believed.

It was a few weeks before I understand the impact on my asylum claim of that age assessment. By saying I was 16 I was denied the chance to go to school, a foster family or care home. I was granted a temporary leave to remain of one year. I spent three months in Kent in a social services unit for under 18s. There I was given classes in British culture and taught how to shop, buy food and manage budgets. This was such a helpful thing to help me understand how things here worked, and I was grateful for that but it was hard to relax and focus because I still had no real idea what was going to happen to me or if I could stay.

After that I was given independent accommodation with an adult asylum seeker.  It was a difficult time.  I was bored and lonely.  The age dispute rumbled on and on. I was determined to prove I was telling the truth but no one seemed to want to listen.

The only bit of good news in my life was that I was reunited with my brother. He had been living in Manchester and I went to join him. It was there that my second life chance at life began.

Finding the way

I had been told about a place called Starting Point, an education unit for international new arrivals to the UK, many of whom were asylum seekers. I went and knocked on the door to ask if I could be admitted. The headteacher Mrs Kellet listened intently to my story. Then she smiled and said: “Gulwali I believe you.”

Those three words changed everything for me.

I was given a smart uniform I loved. It made me feel like a proper student and gave me even more impetus to learn. I would arrive there in the morning tired and hungry and the staff made me toast, tea or hot chocolate. It was safe, caring and compassionate. I studied English along with basic science, maths, art and sport. The idea behind Starting Point was to give someone a grounding for a few weeks before they entered mainstream education. But because of the age dispute I wasn’t allowed to do that.  I stayed there for a year. These wonderful teachers fought on my behalf, conducting their own age assessment which we used to overturn the original one.

Finally, the age assessment was overturned and on 6th June 2009 I started Secondary school, attending Essa Academy in nearby Bolton. I struggled at first, my language skills were still basic and I was intimidated by the size of the school but I was determined to cope. I was put into a German class when I could barely speak English. Making friends was hard because I was still traumatised and I felt different to the other pupils.  I hated PE – changing my clothes in front of students was awful and against my cultural norms. I tried to explain to the PE teacher who let me change in his office. Worst of all, because of my poor language skills, I was put in last academic set for everything. Many of the pupils in my sets lacked motivation or wanted to cause trouble, but I was dedicated and wanted to learn.

Slowly but surely, I made friends and got involved with school life, joining the school council and becoming a prefect and ambassador. I was moved up a set and allowed to take GCSEs. No one expected me to get one but I got ten.

I didn’t want other refugee children to experience what I had experienced, so I asked the teachers if we could develop a better system for other refugee kids to help make them feel more comfortable at the start. The school supported me and I became an ambassador helping new international arrivals. The headteacher organised a community cohesion conference where other schools came along to hear our model so they could implement it themselves. It was amazing. Just these few small steps could really ensure that other refugee children started school empowered, motivated and inspired.

In December 2010, I was placed into foster care, three years after I had arrived. It gave me stability warmth love and family – the things I needed the most. It was my best experience in the UK and without it I know I could not have achieved so much in my education. My foster family not only opened their home they opened they hearts to me.

A lot of my assumptions and stereotypes were challenged. For example, my foster Mum Karen worked and Dad Sean stayed home to look after the kids. I found this odd at first, wrong even. It was so far removed from my own culture. But I got used to it. Sean was so helpful to me, showing me how to cook different foods from all around the world and I learned to love our cooking sessions together. They bought me Halal food, and both took time to ask me about my school day and help with my homework. Trusting strangers, especially ones from a different faith and culture, was hard. But they made me feel home so I did. Building a relationship like that takes time and there has to be willingness on both parts to make it work. But we became a family and I loved them both.

When I turned 18, social services told me I had to leave. I would have loved to stay with them until I had finished my second year of sixth form.  I was back on my own again, but this time I had my foster parent’s continued friendship and support as well as that of Mrs Brodie, a teacher I had become close to at Starting Point.

At Bolton Sixth Form college I became a student governor and sat on the school Equality and Diversity Committee, which ensured equal opportunity access to all students. I also got involved with outside activities too, sitting on the Children in Care Council, The Children’s Society Youth Council, the British Youth Council, the NHS Youth Forum, the National Scrutiny Group (which scrutinised government youth polices) and others. This youth voice work played an important part in my integration, giving back to the community but also, crucially, it made me feel like I was part of the fabric of British society.


I think I felt I had finally made it in this country when I got a place to study politics at Manchester University. Never in my wildest dreams when I crouched hidden in those boxes of bananas did I imagine my story in the UK would end with that.  During Freshers week, I was so overwhelmed I almost had panic attacks but I knew how lucky I was to be at such a leading institution.

Now that I have graduated and am a published author I finally feel settled here in the UK. One day I hope to return to Afghanistan because it will always be my home, and home is home. Most refugees are desperate to return to their home countries once it is safe enough.

But until that day the UK is my second home and a country I love. Despite everything I went through with the authorities in terms of proving my age and my story I know for sure that the British values of tolerance, justice and fairness do exist. They exist in the people who live on this Island. In my darkest hours and most uncertain days it was individuals – teachers, foster carers, youth workers, social workers – who kept me going and urged me on.  The system did not value me but these people did.  They gave me a sense of belonging and a mission that was what was missing in the system. But I know I was lucky because many refugees do not find that. And for them integration is so very much harder.

My ultimate moment of Britishness came when I was selected to carry the Olympic torch through Britain. I’ve never loved my adopted home more than at that moment. But I’d never have done it if my former teacher Mrs Brodie had not encouraged me to apply. It is because of people like her that I want to do all can in my own life to help and support other vulnerable young people.

My calling for now is to contribute to British society as best as I can by working hard to be a spokesperson for other refugees, by talking about the issues surrounding immigration, integration and multi-culturalism. I hope by telling my story I can help people from both sides of the debate understand and come together.

There is so much negativity about refugees. But I want to prove that if given the right support, help with integration and encouragement to share their skills and talents refugees can become valued members of their host society. We may have a different past but that does not mean we cannot have a shared future.


A productive year of activism, advocacy & campaigning.

It has been a greatly insightful year of travelling, talks and contributions to panel discussions on the refugee crisis. Looking into finding ways of supporting and helping refugees and asylum seekers in the U.K.

I have had the opportunity to speak at over 100 events across Britain, Europe and the States during 2017.

One of the many highest of year, I was given the privilege and honour to deliver the Manchester Foundation Day lecture.

Refugee turned author and graduate speaks at University Foundation Day:

The Lightless Sky was selected as one of the book for Read Regional by New Writing North. Therefore, I was able to do a tour of the north of England, speaking at libraries, schools and festivals. It was certainly a wonderful opportunity to get visit towns across the region and meet some amazing people, doing brilliant work of welcoming refugees, showing compassion and solidarity in their local community.

If we Direct them to the Right Source, Refugees have Brilliant Ideas:

Global Awareness Lecture 2017: Bedales School

A shared Britain – refugee policy for 2017:

What Would You Do If Your Home Became A Warzone?

Afghan author urges people to welcome refugees:

Give refugees a chance and they will make impressive contributions…

A note to Gulwali Passarlay, author of the Lightless Sky.

International Youth Day. #YouthVoice #Health

Presenting Awards to scouts in Lancashire, celebrating their achievements and success.

With thanks to Big Issue North for featuring me on their weekly cover.

Speaking to educators in Sweden for the second time in Malmo, on how best to support ingratiation of UASC/refugees into education.

Gulwali Passarlay gave us a fascinating insight into the lives of so many refugees who go to enormous lengths to escape from whatever horrendous life awaits them if they stay put. Galley Club:

Understanding and Meeting the Needs of Refugee Children

Co-facilitated by Nola Ellen and Gulwali Passarlay:


Earlier this year we had the chance to speak with Gulwali Passarlay who came to the UK seeking asylum when he was just 13 years old. We spoke to him about his experiences as a young person seeking asylum in the UK, his achievements and his hopes for other young asylum seekers and refugees. We will let him introduce himself in his own words…



And the journey continues, looking forward to more active public engagements of events and talks to create awareness, inform public opinion and encourage a welcoming environment for refugees coming to Brexit Britain.

Articles, interviews for The Lightless Sky 

I had the pleasure of participating in the Read Regional Campaign run by New Writing North, who selected the Lightless Sky as part of the project. It was amazing travelling across the north and speaking at libraries and schools. 

Read Regional

From March to June each year, the annual Read Regional campaign celebrates selected new books from the North of England. At libraries and literary festivals across the North, authors take part in events where you can hear about their writing and talk to them about their work. 


Afghan refugee brings his story to Hexham

Bolton graduate shortlisted for prestigious education award

Man who fled war torn Afghanistan takes to the stage to raise awareness of refugees

If we Direct them to the Right Source, Refugees have Brilliant Ideas

Author’s epic escape to freedom life story inspires Excelsior pupils

Passarlay’s book chronicles his journey as a young refugee

Book review: ‘The Lightless Sky’ tells modern-day refugee story

GULWALI PASSARLAY; Global Youth Ambassador, Theirworld

Author Gulwali Passarlay speaks about his journey as a refugee from Afghanistan to Britain, aged 12

Gulwali Passarlay: The Lightless Sky #refugees #afghanistan

Panel member for Olive Branch Fostering, An amazingly humble and rewarding experience.

A share Britain, Refugee Policy for 2017.  

To start the year, Dr Jonathan Darling, Senior Lecturer in Human Geography specialising in the politics and ethics of forced migration, and Gulwali Passarlay, Afghan refugee, politics graduate and author of ‘The Lightless Sky’, reflect on how government might support asylum seekers and refugees in 2017. Together, they discuss the challenges of the last year and propose five ways that policy can respond over the coming year.

What Would You Do If Your Home Became A Warzone?

Plaque unveiled in the School to recognise the role of refugees across the country

Student Gulwali Passarlay is part of a high-profile campaign organised by The Joint Council For The Welfare Of Immigrants #IAmARefugee.

I am A refugee: 

Gulwali Passarlay was forced to flee his home in Afghanistan when he was just 12 years old. His debut book, The Lightless Sky, charts his perilous journey over land and sea to Britain, where he finally found safety. A tale of fortitude and friendship told through a child’s eyes, Gulwali’s story casts much needed light on the difficult decisions refugees are forced to take about who to trust and how to stay alive against a backdrop of political indifference.

Here, Gulwali writes exclusively for the Refugee Council about his experience of arriving in Britain as a child: bewildered, frightened and alone.

WATCH: Afghan author urges people to welcome refugees

Give refugees a chance and they will make impressive contributions…

A note to Gulwali Passarlay, author of the Lightless Sky.

Thank you to everyone for their support, encouragements and for reading The Lightless Sky. 

I look forward to more public speaking opportunities across the UK, which I certainly enjoy visiting place, meeting people, creating awareness about refugees and finding compassion ways to help and support but also encouraging solidarity and action. 

Public speaking engagements 

Events/talks/conference since the publication of the lightless sky, in just over a year or so. But have done even more interviews with mainstream media, TV, newspapers, radio, online etc. 
I have attended, participated and contributed to many literary festivals, libraries, schools and other panel discussion during my travelling across the U.K. Starting most recent 🙂 

Saffron Walden visit and talk at the Friend Meeting House 

Presenting Awards and giving presentation to Scouts in Lancashire 

Essa academy achievements evening 

Parliamentors alumnus networking 

SelfCareEverywhere Young people event Bradford NHS 

Patient leadership NHS conference London 

Asylum, Refugee conference Preston CoS 

Carlisle library talk 

The Radcyffle school, Oldham 

Malta visit, ESN, SSC 

Prime Mary school talk in Leicester 

Quakers event on awareness of refugee issues through art, London, during RW 

Salford university talk on asylum, refugees 

Bedford library visit/talk 

Darlington library talk as part of ReadRegional 

NHS, nursing conference in Exeter, talk the mental health challenges for Asylum seekers, the role school nurses plays 

Talk at Youth hub in Bristol to UASC 

Birmingham talk alongside Mrs Brown 

Gateshead library visit 

Stockton library talk 

Bridlington library/school 


JCORE fundraising event, on panel with Lord Dubs 

NUS conference Leeds, hosting and presenting awards to International Students 

Oxford fundraising event for Help Refugees 

CRMC AGM attendance, contribution 

Kent – KARN event in Canterbury 

Hereford, Quakers, Friend Meeting House 

Bern, Switzerland conference on Rights of children on the move 

Huddersfield library/school 

Panel discussion, participation at RSA on education in conflict zones 

Fostering panel interviewing potential Forster carers. 

School talk at Cheltenham 

Bradford library 

Chatham House 

Refugee Connection visit 

Coventry event 

Malta visit, meeting the President 

Standerland city library 

Newcastle city library talk 

Doncaster library 

Afghan emabssy event DC 

Talk at college in Rochester NY 

Glasgow festival talk 

Headingly library 

Leeds university 

Hexham library, festival 

NOMAD Trustee meeting

Oldham conference on racism 

Leeds NHS event 

Bury CoE School 

Warwick uni talk 

LSE STAR event 

APn awards 

British Education Award 

Missing Children Europe conference, Malta

Swedish educators talk, London 

Dunhurst school, Petersfield 

Their World, AWAS event 

Exeter school 

Walsall academy visit 

Talk at St Ethelbrge 

Greenwood event with Lord Dubs 

Havering college panel 

European Commission, Right of Child Forum speech, brussels 

NNECC event at UoWE on children in care 

Ship lake college talk, play 

UNA Chichester 

Oxfam schools event 

Nottingham uni 

Birmingham anti racism event 

Social work with Refugees talk, BSWA

Interfaith summit 3FF

STAR conference 

Royal society of art 

ASAUK event 

Nursing conference NHS Birmingham 

Humanitarian Congress Berlin 

Salisbury world event 

Calais visit 

Goldsmith college 

Newcastle Read Regional – NWN 

Wimbledon in conversation event 

TSCF visit 

Youthforia, YMPs, NW – Wigan 

Leicester festival 

Edinburgh book festival 

ParliaMentors talk in parliament 

IWM summer school 

Geneva UN visit 

York, UKYP Annual Siting

Chorley school, award evening 

Liverpool event 

Brodstaries CL talk 

The Mayfair event, charity fundraising 

South bank festival 

Raynes park event 

Leicester school visit 

Wasted library/school 

Oxford fundraising 

Chatham House 

3FF london 

Care for Calais Birmingham 

Hay Festival 


UCL event Preston 

CSPC talk 

Sherborne visit 

Holy cross school 

Guardian Live event 

HOME talk Manchester 

Sharples school 

Lancaster uni event 

Burway books, Shropshire 

Chichester talk 

Oxford festival 

Chatham House refugee panel 

Paris visit, school talks 

Munich uni, conference 

Sweden HeadTeachers congress 

Canterbury uni talk 

Oxfam schools event 

Shrewsbury event 

NHS Leeds 

Cambridge bookshop event. 

Lancaster art festival

Gladstone event 

Arabella church showcases 

Uffculme school, Devon

Wimbledon library 

Bolton library 

LSE politics society 

CitizenUK event 

New York visit, talks, interviews 

San Francisco presentation 

Fundraising for refugees Norfolk 

OHCHR, UN Geneva, Human Rights 

AHP event Leeds 

Shrewsbury college 

Lewes visit

Taunton literary festival 

FrontLine Club panel discussion 

Brussels conference 

Essa academy talk 

Edinburgh talk 

Belfast visit, talk 

SOAS launch event 

Queens Marry uni talk 

Nobel connection 

Salford uni SU 

Parliamentors panel discussion 

ilkley festival 

Manchester festival 

Warwick authors event 

The Lightless Sky publication in other languages. 

I am very pleased to say in 2016 #TheLightlessSky have been published in 6 languages and 7 different countries with 10 edition. You will be able to find them on Amazon and book shops around the U.K. Europ and the world. #Franch, German, Italian, Rominan, Chinese, American English and hopefully more to come…

Germany: ‘Sky without Light’

Italy: ‘I Follow The Stars’

Frence: ‘IamGulwali’

And US,

Graduation from the UoM! 

I am truly honoured and privilege to have completed my BA in politics and social science. Here are some articles about my completion and contributions at Manchester. 

Graduation success for inspirational Afghan refugee:

Inspiring Afghan refugee who fled across eight countries at the age of 12 graduates from University – MEN:

Gulwali Passarlay celebrates graduation success after coming to Bolton as a refugee:

Two awards for the School in University awards ceremony. The Distinguished Achievement Awards Ceremony has been held to recognise achievements across the University.

Undergraduate of the year – Gulwali Passarlay
Gulwali Passarlay has just completed his Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences degree.

Articles, interviews in the last few months in 2016. 

2016, although being a terrible year for the world peace and refugees, but I have been very busy trying to making whatever little difference I would to give voice to the voiceless and human face to the statistics and numbers. 

Here are my writings and talks 🙂 

‘Less than human’: does asylum system harm child refugees’ mental health?

Once Upon a Tweet, found online, told online and watch online – BBC Three

Like last year, I once again had the opportunity to lead the Refugee Welcome Protest in London.

Speaking to bbc world – The Inquiry about missing UASC in Europe. #TheLightlessSky

It was a great to have the chance to speak at Europen Commission on #EUChilRightsForum about my experiences, story and struggle as refugee in Europ. First 40 minutes  is my speech and discussion.

Link to photos from the conference 🙂

‘When I fled to the UK, no one believed I was 13. Ten years on, nothing’s changed’

Gulwali Passarlay had to convince officials that he was still only a child when he arrived in the UK; now he sees children younger than he was facing the same treatment. He explains why it leaves him angry:

And another Article I wrote for the guardian in 2015. 

At 13 I found sanctuary in Britain, now we’re failing refugee children:

Some portraits of me by an brilliant photographer 🙂

It was good to have been on the panel at Havering College students meet challenge of broadcasting their version of BBC’s Question Time: 

Mr Passarlay was met with a round of applause from the young audience when he said: “Why should old people just get the right to vote?”

He continued: “I was certain that we were going to vote to stay. The majority who voted to leave did it in good faith.

“It makes me angry that people who can vote, didn’t vote and 16-year-olds should be able to vote. If that was allowed the result would have been completely different.”

Alongside many talks and events that I have attend and participate go give speeches or go in conversation with academic and journalists. I was invited to give a talk and contribute to a panel discussion at the STAR conference by students supporting refugees.

Spoke a charity event for Syria.

Impressive to work with a group of Summer school students at IWM: 

And finally some pictures from other events and conferences across the UK and Europe.