In year ending June 2020, 53% of applications, at initial decision, resulted in grants of asylum, humanitarian protection or alternative forms of leave (such as discretionary leave or UASC leave), up from 44% in the previous year.
— Read on www.gov.uk/government/publications/immigration-statistics-year-ending-june-2020/how-many-people-do-we-grant-asylum-or-protection-to
#1 Best Seller in Biographies & Memoirs of Educators
— Read on www.amazon.co.uk/Lightless-Sky-Refugee-Journey-Britain-ebook/dp/B010KMZU2U
Book review: The lightless sky, by Lyndsey
The novel ‘The Lightless Sky’ by author Gulwali Passarlay (2015) highlights many issues that we come across today within social work due to the ongoing refugee crisis. Gulwali’s heartfelt story identifies the emotional trauma refugees go through trying to seek a safe place to live and shows us how they become oppressed on their journey. Although I found the story upsetting to read, I think it gives us more of a detailed understanding of what is happening to refugees today (Passarlay, 2015).
Gulwali’s story began with stories from his childhood and different experiences he encountered as a child in Southern Afghanistan. It is clear to see the different way people in Afghanistan live compared to people in the UK. The children seem to be expected to grow up much earlier on and take on roles that would be duties for adults. This shows how factors such as cultural practices and beliefs can influence children’s upbringing (Dettlaff & Fong, 2016). One experience Gulwali recalls is watching a woman in the streets be stoned to death for being an adulteress. During this section he states, “I didn’t enjoy it, but I didn’t cry either” (Passarlay, 2015 p.27). If a child in Britain saw that happen in the middle of the streets, I think they would be very emotional and act differently to how Gulwali did. Therefore, I believe understanding cultural competence in social work practice today is so important, as it allows us to become more accustomed to different cultures way of life around the world and how they deal with their differences (Fong, 2004).
In 2006, at the age of twelve years old Gulwali and his brother Hazrat, aged thirteen fled their rural village to find a safe place to live in Europe. Their mother had arranged the journey for them and paid a smuggler to help them along the way. Some people would argue how a mother could allow her two sons to take the journey alone at such a young age. However, this decision was made after the death of their father and grandfather who lost their lives in a shoot-out with the US troops, who believed Gulwali’s family were hiding weapons for the Taliban (Passarlay, 2015). I think Gulwali’s mother felt her sons would have a better chance of survival fleeing the country, than they would if they had have stayed. This must have been such a terrifying ordeal for both young boys, losing people they love then leaving the rest of their family behind to try and find a safe place to survive. Gulwali (2015) says, “I was too traumatised to speak. My only comfort was my brother’s hand” (p.49). According to Bronstein and Montgomery (2011) children who are refugees have a higher prevalence of mental disorders than children who are not refugees. This shows how traumatic events that refugee children go through can lead to mental disorders that can persist for a long period of time. I believe that in order to pursue anti-oppressive practice and help these children receive the best support possible, we all have the responsibility of understanding the issues they have faced in life and the barriers and inequalities they have encountered (Horner, 2009).
Before the boys’ journey had barely begun, they were separated in Peshawar’s international airport. This made Gulwali very emotional, as he stated, “I was a terrified, lonely, sobbing mess” (Passarlay, 2015 p.50). From this moment Gulwali was on his journey with no family or people that he knew, just smugglers and other refugees. His journey took him across Iran and Turkey, then onto Bulgaria where he was forced off a moving train which resulted in him being arrested and deported back to Iran in prison. During this time, he made a few close friends who helped him along the way. As he mentioned “I was so grateful to Baryalai looking out for me the way he did – I couldn’t have made it otherwise” (Passarlay, 2015 p.101). This identifies how children seek attachments throughout life to survive and feel safe. As West et al (1987) proposed, “the presence of an attachment figure fosters security in the child” (Parkes, Hinde & Marris, 1991 p.66).
Gulwali managed to escape the prison in Iran and continue his journey again. Finally, back in Turkey he boarded a boat to Greece, this is where he nearly lost his life due to the boat being so overcrowded. Luckily, he was rescued by a coast guard and taken to an immigration centre in Athens. From here he went onto Italy were he finally found a safe place to stay, however with the determination to find his brother and reach Britain he fled to carry on his journey. He went onto Rome, then Paris and Calais. After a month in Calais Gulwali finally reached his destination, Britain (Passarlay, 2015).
Throughout his journey Gulwali has moments where he thinks about his family back in Afghanistan and worries how they are, due to not having any contact with them. I think for a child of his age to be going through such a terrifying ordeal and having the added pressure of worrying about his family on top, must have really put a strain on his emotional wellbeing (Passarlay, 2015). Christiansen and Foighel (1990) carried out clinical work with unaccompanied refugee children in Denmark and found that many of them were “preoccupied with worry for the family’s wellbeing” (Kohli, 2007 p.36). This shows how the psychological effects of unaccompanied children can become complex due to leaving family members behind. However, some people may argue that Christiansen and Foighel’s (1990) study is outdated and not all unaccompanied refugee children will have complex psychological effects, as some children “demonstrate resilience in conducting their day to day lives” when their journey is complete (Kohli, 2007 p.38). To ensure unaccompanied refugee children receive the best possible care and support, it is our duty as social workers to have knowledge and understanding of the Working Together to Safeguard Children policy (2018) as this “acknowledges that children entering the UK are potentially the most vulnerable and in greatest need” (Kelly & Bokhari, 2012 p.24).
Once in Britain, Gulwali was arrested and interviewed. He recalled this experience, stating “they interrogated me for hours” (Passarlay, 2015 p.318). Research was carried out by Stanley (2001) looking at the experiences of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children in England. These results identified “a pattern of chaotic, disturbing and inconsistent treatment of the young people interviewed” (Hayes & Humphries, 2004 p.45). This shows how some authorities misuse their power which affects the performance of official duties. In addition to this, stated in ‘The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child’ (UNCRC) (1989) under article twelve, “the child shall in particular be provided the opportunity to be heard in any judicial and administrative proceedings affecting the child, either directly, or through a representative or an appropriate body, in a manner consistent with the procedural rules of national law” (Unicef, 2019). I believe in this instance the UNCRC was not taken into consideration for Gulwali.
As social workers we have professional power to guide and support people, following policies and procedures. As outlined in the BASW (2014) Code of Ethics for social work, it is fundamental that we also have “respect for human rights and a commitment to promote social justice” (BASW, 2014 p.4). However, in Gulwali’s case this did not happen as the social workers he encountered “were aggressive and abrupt” (Passarlay, 2015 p.322) and did not believe that he was thirteen years old, so they sent him to live with adult asylum seekers. I found this frustrating and upsetting to read as “unaccompanied asylum-seeking and refugee children in England have the same legal entitlements as citizen children” (Hayes & Humphries, 2004 p.45) including the right to health care and education. However, it took Gulwali nearly two years to persuade the authorities that he was a child and finally at the age of fifteen he received his entitlements and started school. Some people may argue that this delay was down to the age assessment test that consists of asking a series of questions to try and determine the refugees age (Laird 2008).
Gulwali went on to learn English, graduate from university and carry the Olympic torch in 2012. I believe this shows his determination and how our experiences in life can make us who we are today. Luckily for Gulwali his ending was a much happier one compared to many of the refugees who do not complete their journey to freedom. I feel this story has enlightened my understanding as to why the thousands of people risk their lives every day to flee their country and seek a safe place to live. It has also made me realise a lot more needs to be put into place to ensure the system is better attuned to meet the needs of unaccompanied child refugees. Overall, Gulwali’s experience has encouraged me to continue fighting for the rights of others by promoting social justice in my future practice.
BASW. (2014). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from https://www.basw.co.uk/professional-development/professional-capabilities-framework-pcf/the-pcf/social-worker/diversity-and-equality
Bronstein, I., & Montgomery, P. (2011). Psychological distress in refugee children: a systematic review. DOI: 10.1007/s10567-010-0081-0
Dettlaff, A., & Fong, R. (2016). Immigrant and refugee children and families: Culturally responsive practice. New York: Columbia University Press
Fong, R. (2004). Culturally competent practice with immigrant and refugee children and families. New York: Guilford Press
Hayes, D., & Humphries, B. (2004). Social Work, Immigration and Asylum. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Horner, N. (2009). What is Social Work? Contexts and perspectives. Exeter: Learning matters Ltd.
Kelly, E., & Bokhari, F. (2012). Safeguarding children from abroad. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers
Kohli, R. (2007). Social Work with unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan
Laird, S. (2008). Anti-Oppressive Social Work: A guide for developing cultural competence. London: SAGE Publications Ltd
Parkes, C., Hinde, J., & Marris, P. (1991). Attachment across the life cycle. London: Routledge
Passarlay, G. (2015). The lightless sky. London: Atlantic Books
Taylor, J., Bond, E., & Woods, M. (2013). Early childhood studies: A multidisciplinary and holistic introduction. London: Hodder Education
Unicef. (2019). United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved from https://www.unicef.org.uk/what-we-do/un-convention-child-rights/
Gulwali Passarlay’s novel is an earnest and honest recount of his personal journey from Afghanistan to the UK. It details his childhood and family life in Nangarhar, which was then interrupted by war. He explains the breakdown of his family, his blunt realization that he is to begin a long and arduous journey to Europe – alone, and the deterioration of his health both mental and physical. It is a novel that provokes feelings of sadness, empathy, shock, but also empowerment, a young boy’s journey to build a better life.
Throughout reading the book I often made links to my own childhood experiences, asking myself questions such as ‘would I have been able to make such a journey at such a young age?’ Thinking about the very prevalent theme of age, I was overwhelmed with shock at how a twelve year old child was able to manage money, meet new people and form mature friendships, and stay true to his internal rules and morals. It made me question whether at that age I would be able to make such life changing decisions, and navigate my way across the world using limited language skills and with little money. I feel overwhelmingly lucky that I was born in a country where human rights laws are very strong, and to a family that did not feel the pressure to move me away from my family home for my own safety and protection. There is a sense that Gulwali lost his childhood because of the war, and he needed to mature at an early age in order to survive.
I feel that Gulwali had such a strong personality and showed great determination. The journey that he took would have been commendable at any age, and it made me wonder whether many adults within our society would be able to do such a thing and show as much strength as he did. I also felt very strong feelings of empathy towards Gulwali, his mother and all of the displaced migrants that he came into contact with on his journey.
In effect, Gulwali lost all of his family, and didn’t even have the means to contact them by telephone. Being cut off from his grandparents made me feel especially saddened, as he expressed such care and love towards them in the first chapter, and I feel that much of the warmth in his own personality had been learnt through them. When he was in Afghanistan and his father was killed, he was understandably grieving with his family, yet when he was thrust on his journey to Europe he had to grieve for every other member of his family. This too included his brother, whom his mother had hoped would be by his side for the entire journey. I believe that the decision to send her children on such an arduous journey, never knowing if she would see or speak to them again, or whether they would live, must have been incredibly tough.
The breakdown of the family unit is one of many themes highlighted in the novel that are relevant to social work practice. According to the British Refugee Council (2019) there has been an increase in the number of unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK. This will impact on social work practice because many social workers, during their professional lives, will encounter unaccompanied minors who will require their care and support. In order to work with these children we must try to understand their journeys and where they have come from, and The Lightless Sky provides a glimpse of that.
The novel highlights the theme of differing cultures very well, with Gulwali’s changing understanding of how others live. He struggled to accept how people would dress or present themselves, how women were accepted and treated within more western cultures and the general customs and ideals of people within Europe. For example in chapter twenty four he recalls meeting Sabina and Alexandria in Italy, and makes note that Alexandria was the first woman that he had ever shook hands with (Passarlay). His recollection of the role of the women in his life at the beginning of the novel compared to the role of women in the UK towards the end differs greatly. Gulwali explains that the women in Afghanistan ‘rarely left the house’ as it would bring shame upon the family if their women were seen in public. Comparatively, when Gulwali is placed with his foster parents in the UK, he explained that he struggled to understand why Sean, as the male of the house, was doing the majority of the cooking. He believed that this was the role of the woman within the family unit, but began to understand that his shock of this was due to cultural differences, and that if he were to live in the UK he would need to try to understand these differences.
What I found to be the most upsetting was Gulwali’s mental health problems that he describes throughout the book in harrowing detail. This made me wonder how many refugees and asylum seekers have trouble with their mental health whilst on their journey, and whether there is any help available to them.
Passarlay noted that he often had ‘bad dreams’, for example when he explained that his “sleep was filled with terrible dreams and flashbacks. I used to dream I was drowning, or wandering lost in the mountains” (Passarlay, 2015). Sleep terrors are one of the many symptoms that refugees and asylum seekers suffer with, alongside depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and conduct disorders (Fazel & Stein, 2002). They explain that there are three stages of traumatic experiences, which include the experiences within their native countries, their journey and then their period of finding respite in another country. Gulwali explains his psychological upset within all of these periods, describing in detail his struggles with being uprooted from his home in Afghanistan and apart from his family.
Gulwali notes on numerous occasions that his main concern was being apart from his brother, Hazrat. He set off on his journey alongside his brother, leaving the rest of his family in Afghanistan, but was quickly separated from him. Throughout reading the book I felt as though his journey to Europe was not just in search of refuge but also in search of his brother. This was shown when he was put in touch with someone that travelled to Europe alongside his Hazrat. Gulwali met with this man and upon hearing that Hazrat was in UK decided that he would travel to UK to find him (Passarlay, 2015). To Gulwali, the only way to ‘finish the journey’ and find peace was to be alongside his brother.
At the start of the book, Gulwali also describes his upset in his home country during the US war with Afghanistan. The trauma that he encountered will have made him more vulnerable to mental health problems such as increased levels of anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Steel et al. (2009) explains that people seeking asylum are likely to encounter problems with their mental health because of pre-migration and post-migration experiences. This means that because they are opened up to traumatic events in their home countries – such as war or poor human rights – and traumatic experiences on their journey to their country of asylum, they are more likely to suffer with mental health problems. This is reinforced by research that shows that asylum seekers are five times more likely to have mental health needs than the general population and more than 61% will experience serious mental distress (Eaton, Ward, Womack & Taylor, 2011).
Due to there being higher rates of mental health problems within refugees and asylum seekers, compared to the general population, it would be beneficial to them if there were dedicated and easily accessible support systems and care. However, data shows that they are less likely to receive support than the general population (Aspinall & Watters, 2010). I understand that this may not necessarily mean that the support is not available, as Gulwali explains, it could be for cultural reasons. When he is offered the help of a psychiatrist he states that “once I would have been horrified to sit and talk to a woman whose head was uncovered. But I had changed. Some things really weren’t that important to me anymore. And the nightmares were so bad that I knew I needed help” (Passarlay, 2015). Cultural differences need to be taken into account when providing care and support to people who are seeking asylum.
In conclusion, The Lightless Sky has been a thought provoking and challenging book to read, as I feel that I will take many of the lessons that I have learnt from it with me on my journey through social work practice. As a social worker it is important to listen to the experiences that a person has lived through and survived, and take note of the impact that trauma can have upon an individual. We must try to understand that people seeking asylum want a better life for themselves, and when we begin to break down barriers and build a relationship, we are able to see the person as a whole.
Aspinall, P., & Watters, C. (2010). Refugees and Asylum Seekers: A review from an equality and human rights perspective. Equality and Human Rights Commision Research report 52, University of Kent.
British Refugee Council. (2019). Refugee Council Information: Quarterly Asylum Statistics. Retrieved from https://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/06/Asylum-Statistics-May-2019.pdf
Eaton, V., Ward, C., Womack, J. & Taylor, A. (2011). Mental Health and Wellbeing in Leeds: An Assessment of Need in the Adult Population. NHS Leeds.
Fazel, M. & Stein, A. (2002). The Mental Health of Refugee Children. Archives of Disease in Childhood.
Passarlay, G. (2015). The Lightless Sky. London: Atlantic Books
Steel, Z., Chey, T., Silove, D., Marnane, C., Bryant, R. & Van Ommeren, M. (2009). Association of torture and other potentially traumatic events with mental health outcomes among populations exposed to mass conflict and displacement: A systemic review and meta-analysis. JAMA, 302, 537-549.
Listen to this episode from Three Musketeers Podcast on Spotify. Hear the Amazing Story of Gulwali Passarlay, author of The Lightless Sky, shares his story of escape from the Taliban in Afghanistan, to finding safety in the UK as a twelve-year-old child refugee. Exploring the stories of refugees and talking about the current situation of today in UK and World Wide
— Read on open.spotify.com/episode/4xujvewkk534goSQCRxEks
Written Assessment – Book Review – The Lightless Sky- Alice
Gulwali Passarlay is a twelve-year-old Afghanistani Pashtun. Brought up in a conservative Muslim Pashtunwali family, he holds strong cultural values and beliefs. Having lived a relatively simple life he is thriving in his own right. Suddenly, aged seven, he is caught up in the ‘War on Terror’ as the United States bomb Afghanistan following the New York attacks on September 11th, 2004. Aged eleven he loses his male role models and with his brothers is left as one of the ‘men of the house’. Suspected by the US of being Taliban supporters and encouraged by those around them to join the Taliban the family find themselves in mortal danger. It is then his mother sends him and Hazrat, his older brother, on what he believes to be a short journey, to the safety of Europe.
‘The Lightless Sky’ follows Gulwali on his physical, emotional and spiritual journey through treacherous conditions. Controlled by smugglers, oppressed and exploited whenever possible, Gulwali quickly loses his innocence. Throughout this fantastic book we see him grow into a very clever and resourceful young man. When faced with hopeless situations and terrifying ordeals, Gulwali learns from each experience and grows stronger and more resilient page by page. An inspirational memoir showing the extreme abilities of the human child to survive, Gulwali’s story is truly inspiring and extremely eye opening.
The range of emotions I experienced during reading this book were extreme. As he recounts seemingly normal childhood moments that involve witnessing lashings and stonings, I felt sympathy for him before he even started his journey. My disconnection from the Afghan culture shocked me to my core. I had little idea how sheltered I was from the ways people live under oppressive regimes such as the Taliban, and how they grow to believe this is the social norm and, in Gulwali’s family’s case, an improvement on the previous leaders. I had moments throughout this book where I made sweeping judgements. For example, there was an instant anger against the way he described Bin Laden as a “freedom fighter” (Passarlay, p 29) and the “swell of patriotism” (Passarlay p.29) that came from hiding him. I also felt the persecution of the family, because of its links to the Taliban, was self-inflicted. There was also an initial difficultly to understand why Gulwali ran away from the help when it was provided and his incessant need to reach the UK and not settle in the first safe country. This book really challenged me and brought to the surface prejudices I did not know I held.
I found this book somewhat life changing. In my 34 years I had never stopped to consider what drives refugees or the journeys they embark on. Embarrassingly, I had never stopped to consider refugees. Refugees were simply something that happened elsewhere and none of my concern. Gulwali’s book has enabled me to understand the issue of asylum. I have learnt from it and I have gained knowledge to take with me in my life. It is in this new understanding where I feel Gulwali is really making a difference. This book is essential reading to anyone likely to be working with the disadvantaged, oppressed and vulnerable.
‘The Lightless Sky’ is so much more than a book about immigration and asylum. It is inciteful in relation to social work, touching on cultural references, childhood development and what it means to be a child, oppression and power struggles, feminism and patriarchal attitudes to women. There is reference to attachment, abandonment, trauma and abuse. What is, on the surface, a simple biographical piece can teach us how to consider all that we see with an open and inquisitive mind and to realise the level and depth of learning that can be achieved by this. To illustrate the way ‘The Lightless Sky’ links to social work, this piece will look at childhood, and what it means to be a child.
Jenks explains: “The basic assumption that childhood is a social construct reveals that our understandings of childhood and the meanings that we place upon children vary considerably from culture to culture, but also quite radically within the history of any one culture.” I feel ‘The Lightless Sky’, (Passarlay, 2018) illustrates beautifully the construct of childhood in Afganistan allowing me to compare it to a personal childhood lived in the United Kingdom (UK) around the same time. Immediately as it begins, we learn that Gulwali is living a, “conservative village life” (Passarlay, p17). He speaks warmly of his strong Pashtun values and what they mean for him and his community, He speaks of Pashtuns as loyal and fierce. As a very young child of four or five he spends long arduous days in the harsh mountains herding sheep. This seems, in contrast, a very harsh environment when compared to that of a British child within a warm nursery school being cared for by highly trained staff. He mentions that he has witnessed births and deaths. It would be considered inappropriate to allow a young boy to witness a birth or a death in England as we tend to protect our children from these harsh realities of real life. It is also less common for Western children to share their house with extended family (ONS, 2018), whereas Gulwali lives with his extended family: his aunts, uncles and cousins. Duties are shared between the families, with quite a clear hierarchy within which Gulwali knows his place. Whilst he is respectful of his parents much like an English child might be expected to be he also talks of “enjoying exhorting power” (Passarlay, p 16) over his Aunts and describes the way even as a young boy his gender places him above the other women in the house.
Because childhood is defined by society, the expectations for and from children varies widely around the globe and is changing constantly over time. This image we hold of children and how their childhood should be experienced, forms much of our understanding of the roles social workers have with children, teenagers and families. Historically children in the UK were treated much the same as adults: expected to work, contribute to the upkeep of the house and were not protected from hurt or abuse. Our society’s changing attitudes towards childhood led to the introduction of the Children Act 1989 and it is still this act which informs much of social work policy today. (Horner, 2017).
These constructs and ideas often dictate what we, as adults, deem children to be capable of. This in turn affects what children believe themselves to be capable of. As Gulwali progresses on his journey we see him grow and develop and his abilities begin to outweigh both his own and the readers expectations. For example, in chapter 19 Gulwali manages to take control of a large group of angry men and as a result is able to use this control to make life a little better for himself and his companions. (p 187). Once he has been stripped of his devalued child status, he begins to be able to explore his own abilities. This learning is something that underpins contemporary pedagogical practice and the idea that children need to be allowed to take risks to be able to learn, this adds to the idea of children being of equal value to that of adults. (Eichsteller,2017, p507). Towards the end of the book, Gulwali makes reference to “feeling proud”, (Passarlay, p 319) and having a “quiet confidence” (Passarlay, p 320) showing his growth in self-esteem as a result of his achievement of making it to the UK. Whilst the experiences of his journey were extreme and unsuitable, they are an efficient argument of Korczak’s theories that children have the ability to determine their own lives and navigate the world around them. (Charfe & Gardener, 2019).
As a social worker, reading Gulwali’s story and looking at it in relation to childhood and through the lens of intersectionality, it becomes clear that a child who has seen, felt and experienced all he has, is going to have complex issues and needs. If the authorities at Dover, Kent and Croydon had taken this into account they would have understood his feelings of oppression, of being misunderstood, persecuted and victimised. This more than likely would have resulted in better treatment of him and a swifter recovery. (Graeve, 2016) We, as social workers, can learn from Gulwali’s experience to see how our ideas of childhood link to our own childhood and shape our values and ideas. As social work is a value-based profession, (Charfe & Gardener, 2019) we need to be aware of these values and how they interact with us as practitioners. In 2004 Humphries asked if, in relation to social work in immigration, “whether there might be a more progressive future for the profession?”. Gulwali’s story tells us there needs to be one.
Charfe, L & Gardener, A. (2019), Social Pedagogy and Social Work, SAGE, London
De Graeve, K., & Bex, C. (2017). Caringscapes and belonging: An intersectional analysis of care relationships of unaccompanied minors in Belgium. Children’s Geographies, 15(1), 80-92.
Holland, S & Scourfield, J. (2015), Social Work a Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Horner, N. (2017). What is Social Work?. SAGE, London
Humphries, B. (2004). An Unacceptable Role for Social Work:Implimenting Immigration Policy. Journal of Social Work, 34, 93-107, doi:1093/bjsw/bch007
Jenks, C. (2002) Childhood. (Vol. Taylor & Francis e-Libray ed). Taylor & Francis Routledge, London.
McClean S & Harrison, R. (2015) Theory and Practice, (3rd ed). Kirwin McClean, Staffordshire
Moss, B & Thompson, N. (2005). Spirituality and Equality. Social & Public Policy Review, 1, 1, doi: 10.1.1.687.7037
Office of National Statistics, Household Composition, Census 2011, retrieved from: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/housing/articles/characteristicsofbuiltupareas/2013-06-28#household-composition
Passarlay, G. (2018), The Lightless Sky, Atlantic Books, London
People are having to risk their lives to seek safety and join family members in the UK – but it doesnt have to be this way
— Read on www.jcwi.org.uk/joint-letter-on-channel-crossings
Book Review Lightless Sky. Rochelle
The Lightless Sky is a true story based on a 12-year old boys’ horrific journey to seek asylum, gripping you from the offset.
Throughout the novel, Guwalli speaks of his childhood as he recalls fond memories of spending time with his grandparents and being surrounded by a loving family exhibiting their cultures and values.
In 2006 their lives were changed when his father and grandfather were sadly killed by the US troops during the war between the Taliban and Americans. Following this Guwalli and his 13-year-old brother Hazrat were hounded by both the Taliban and the Americans to join forces with them. This meant their lives were increasingly at risk leaving their mother to make the insufferable decision, paying smugglers $8,000 to find safety for her two eldest sons.
Before their journey had even begun the two brothers were separated, this then gave Guwalli a new reason to reach his ultimate destination to both seek safety and reunite with his brother.
This enthralling tale takes you on a journey into the dark as Guwalli witnesses’ brutality, Injustice, and poverty at its worse, forcing him to grow up quickly whilst building resilience and his own coping mechanisms.
Guwalli is soon affected by what he calls ‘a living game of snakes and ladders.’ (Passarlay, 2019, pg107) You can see how the hunger, desperation, and neglect quickly take their toll on the young boy. He firstly struggles to understand his own emotions and then moves into a state of depression and despair as he senses loneliness and desolation on this twelve-month voyage.
In 2007 Guwalli finally reached the UK and was reunited with his brother Hazrat. There was then further hinderances when the authorities questioned his age, alongside his ongoing poor mental health. Despite this Guwalli went on to be granted asylum in the UK, graduated successfully, married, and founded his charity ‘my bright kite’. However, one of Guwalli’s proudest moments was carrying the Olympic torch in the tour of Britain in 2012.
After reading this heart-rendering story I began to reflect on my views and cultures and how as a social worker these will be challenged as I work with an array of people.
I also began considering how people are not purely a product of their experiences but as social workers, we need to use intersectionality to ensure we understand an individual as whole, and not to do them an injustice.
Collins and Bilge (2016) describe intersectionality to analyse and understand the complexities of the world, both people and experiences. They agree it cannot be shaped by one factor and that the many axis such as race, class, religion, and sex can work together and influence one another. They refer to intersectionality as an analytic tool, which I agree and feel all social workers should use with everyone.
I also found it distressing to think of a child losing their innocence and witnessing such callousness. But also, it was ultimately inspiring as through all Guwalli’s hardship, he became successful and had a positive outlook, I especially like the quotation Guwalli uses ‘Every opportunity in life, takes us to another’ (Passarlay, 2019, p358).
This led me to research the resilience of a child and how we view childhood, I came across the Kauai Longitude Study which took place in many countries like the UK by Werner & Smith (1992). Looking at this I found that children who suffer more trauma in early life are most resilient, however, they may find it more testing to build attachments and can easily detach from people.
Werner & Smith (1992) followed up on this study in adulthood, which revealed those who had managed to successfully cope with trauma in childhood were likely to suffer with mental health issues in later adulthood.
Throughout the book, I felt anxious and began to consider people’s journeys in life and where it may take them. I contemplated that as social workers, we must listen to people and where they want to be and cogitate how we can support them to get there.
I also felt I was naïve to some of the harsh realities, like the neglect of a child as they travel unaccompanied, the mistreating and how people can use others to their advantage.
The one element which became significant to me was Guwalli’s mental health and the lack of support and provision there was for this. After working with children with emotional, social and behavioural difficulties in the past, I consider the emotional wellbeing of a child imperative. You can see throughout the story that Guwalli suffered physically due to hunger and exhaustion but to me, the reoccurrence of the depression, feeling of isolation and loneliness and the shocking night terrors caused me much desolation. This began me reflecting on what research has been done on refugee children’s mental health and what services are offered to them to support this.
During my learning, I was shocked to discover that a quarter of the growing number of refugees that come to England are children and that within these children there is an increased level of psychological morbidity, especially post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety disorders. The 1989 UN Convention on the rights of a child offers the legal framework for the protection of a child, however, the national immigration law is often what is used therefore, human rights and national self-interest clash and the principle of promoting the refugee child best interest can be overlooked. Fazel & Stein (2002).
I was shocked to discover that refugee children in the UK are not deemed to be vulnerable children as per the Children’s act 1989, therefore, the best interest of the child is not taken into account, the use of the immigration and asylum policy is used and the two have very little cross-referencing. It also appears that due to the political debates concerning asylum seekers and refugees this can have a bearing on the relationship between the child and their social worker in place (Kohli, 2014).
This also came to light in the 2000 audit commission which quoted:
‘Many unaccompanied children have multiple needs because of their experiences of separation, loss and social dislocation. . .. Yet in many cases, they do not receive the same standard of care routinely afforded to indigenous children in need, even though their legal rights are identical.’ (Audit Commission, 2000: 66) (Kohli, 2014, p.13).
Without receiving the adequate care and understanding, these vulnerable children are unable to access services which they require after such trauma, therefore will restrain them from being able to move forward and build their lives. I believe that any child in the UK should be deemed as a ‘child in need’ and their best interest should be paramount.
Looking at this information I now consider, if this is the reason that these child refugees do not receive the correct and sufficient support and access to mental health care.
Children who have become separated from parents are deemed at more risk to suffer mental health issues than those who arrive in the UK with their parents. Kelly and Bokhari (2011) use the work of Bowlby (1953) to demonstrate that even short spells of separation from parents can cause long term damage to building relationships and social development.
It has been researched, more than half of child refugees suffer from poor mental health and the majority are the unaccompanied children. This is due to them being exposed to much more and at a higher risk, being more vulnerable. Many suffer post-traumatic stress syndrome, depression, and anxiety. The percentage of those suffering from poor mental health increases at the age of 18, this is seen to be due to them turning an adult age and risk of deportation. It is also said that having employment or being in education and having social commitments is associated with positive outcomes (Kelly & Bokhari, 2011).
The inclination for these minors to succeed and overcome any challenges is an important and clear characteristic which, as a social worker you would need to consider when working with them. They may demonstrate resilience whilst carrying out their daily lives. (Kohli, 2014. p.38).
Kohli (2014) discusses the work of Howe (1995) who explains the building blocks which he believes we need to use to promote the well-being of child refugees, these include: Understanding and compassion from those around them, both practical and nurturing support and psychotherapy to help them deal with their experiences and traumas and move forward.
I believe as social workers these three building blocks mentioned above are a prodigious foundation in which we can work with to ensure these children have the best start in the UK and all their individual needs are met.
The mental health of child refugees is unquestionably an area that needs more research and development. I feel the law on child refugees needs to be looked at and updated so that it comes in line or at least references the ‘children’s act 1989’ and the UN Convention on the rights of a child.
Collins, P.H., & Bilge, S. (2016). Intersectionality. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Fazel, M, & Stein, A. (2002). The Mental Health of refugee children. Archives of disease in childhood, 87, (5),366-370.
Kelly, E, & Bokhari, F. (2012). Safeguarding children from abroad: Refugee, asylum seeking and trafficked children in the UK. Jessica Kingsley.
Kohli, R.K.S. (2014). Social work with unaccompanied Asylum-seeking children. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Passarlay, G. (2019). The Lightless Sky. London: Atlantic books.
Werner, &Smith. (1992) A summary of recent research. In Goldstein, S., & Brooks, R.B(ED), (2012) Handbook of resilience in children, London: Springer.
Whichever path lawmakers take, the UK must live up to its reputation for “human rights, and justice, and fairness,” says Gulwali Passarlay, remembering his own arduous journey to British shores.
“The future doesn’t look good, but we must continue the fight, continue the struggle for justice and a fair and humane asylum system.”
— Read on m.dw.com/en/uk-faces-new-surge-in-migrant-arrivals/a-54570536
The Lightless Sky Book Review Lucy at Salford uni.
The Lightless Sky is a coming of age story like no other I have read before, Gulwali Passarlay a twelve-year-old Afghan boy is forced to flee his native country as he is caught in the middle of the Taliban and the American fighting. The prologue instantly drew me in and set up the torturous journey of which Gulwali calls: “a game of snake and ladders.” (Passarlay and Ghouri, 2019, p.107) Everything changes for Gulwali after the terror attack on America in September 2001. The Americans invaded Afghanistan and killed members of his family, who were suspected of concealing weapons for the Taliban. Fearing for the safety of her sons, who were being courted by both parties, Gulwali’s mother pays a smuggler to take him and his Brother Hazrat as far as Italy. Shockingly Gulwali and Hazrat are almost immediately separated and throughout the book we see the mental strive Gulwali goes through to be reunited with him. As a mother myself, I found it utterly heart-wrenching to even imagine being separated from my child. The desperate decision Gulwali’s mother makes, to send her sons away, is hard to comprehend without unbearable pain. Ultimately her love, bravery, and sacrifice saved their lives. The journey from Afghanistan to England for Gulwali takes a whole twelve months in which he meets a large variety of people. Some good, some bad, and somewhere the lines are so blurred even Gulwali begins to question the difference. While speaking of a smuggler (Serbest) he meets in Turkey, Gulwali says: “Not only did he risk arrest from the authorities for sheltering illegals, he lived in fear of the powerful regional agents and the various local smugglers and drivers who worked for them.” (Passarlay and Ghouri, 2019, p.179) Through experience, Gulwali is learning even the smugglers can be oppressed while implementing the oppression on others. For me, this is one of the most meaningful lessons of the book in relation to social work. Looking beyond an action to thoroughly understand the person and the circumstances, they find themselves in, will help with the many complex situations within social work. The torture does not end when he reaches England, as after an age assessment performed by a social worker, Gulwali is deemed to be an adult rather than the thirteen-year-old boy he is. In British culture, it seems inconceivable that a child could take on and complete such a demanding journey. I believe it is unethical to be tasked with conducting age assessments for this type of bureaucratic purpose, because of the devastating consequences we see with Gulwali. We should not be performing such tests that produce no exact answer, I passionately believe that identities should be non-negotiable. The House of Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights (2013, p. 27) stated: “If assessed incorrectly, children could be accommodated inappropriately, supported insufficiently, and be placed at risk of harm, detention, and deportation.” Therefore, this leads me to believe, the age assessment process constitutes a grave risk that we should not be taking.
Naively when Gulwali reached Italy I began to feel frustrated with his attitude to flee the only safe place he had been since his journey commenced. He had been placed with people who wanted to help him, he had a roof over his head and food aplenty, yet this was the first time we started to glimpse Gulwali feeling self-pity. I struggled to comprehend after everything he had previously been through how he could feel so unsettled. After some questioning, I realised the importance of being with your loved ones and like-minded people whether you are safe or not. Gulwali longed for his companions, he was desperate to reunite with his brother Hazrat and these emotions were considerably stronger than the need for shelter. This again is brought to our attention when Gulwali arrives in England, he finds Hazrat but is unable to stay with him. When I considered the loneliness, language barrier, and the culture shock felt by Gulwali it then became clear to me, his need to travel again. As social workers, we need to be acutely aware of Gulwali’s needs as: “The loss of, or separation from a key attachment figure is known to be one of the most traumatic and damaging human experiences that can impact throughout life.” (Kelly and Bokhari, 2012, p. 7) Unaccompanied children like Gulwali, who have already experienced so much horror and pain in their short lives, are currently being prevented from being reunited with their family members. Presently the law in the United Kingdom denies children the right to bring a family member over. For me, this rule is totally abhorrent. For a country that prides itself on the importance of family values, I struggle to understand how such a rule can even exist. Refugee children should have the same rights as any other child living in the United Kingdom. (The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, 1989) Article 9 states: “Parties shall respect the right of the child who is separated from one or both parents to maintain personal relations and direct contact with both parents on a regular basis, except if it is contrary to the child’s best interests.” I strongly believe this right should be adhered to and family reunification should be a priority. As consequently, children who have already witnessed so much terror, are being made to confront the challenges of growing up in a foreign country alone. For Gulwali, it was not until he attempted suicide and when living in the United Kingdom felt so bleak, then did he bravely defy the rules and move to live with Hazrat. I was so incensed that this reunion was made so difficult for these brothers who had no-one else but each other. The loss, trauma, and physical pain Gulwali had been through deeply affected his mental health. He experienced Night terrors, depression, and twice tried to commit suicide. A study undertaken in the United Kingdom by Sanchez-Cao, E., Kramer, T., & Hodes, M. (2013) showed: “Many unaccompanied asylum‐seeking children are at risk of post-traumatic stress disorder and depressive disorder, but few have had mental health service contact.” Now appreciating what a refugee has experienced, I find this utterly appalling that more is not done to help combat the pain of dealing with trauma. I believe, this is due to a lack of understanding and the de-humanising of the encounters they faced. After all, a constant interrogation to prove their identity and to be required to share traumatic experiences repeatedly is not displaying empathy or showing any consideration for their emotional wellbeing. It is my belief that creating a trusting, friendly, and comfortable environment as soon as they arrive would encourage full engagement and make the process run more efficiently for all. Similarly, providing a more efficient process for family reunification, could help deal with trauma and prevent long term mental or emotional damage.
After reading the Lightless Sky, I gained a true insight into the reality’s refugees face. I have gained a wealth of knowledge that as a social worker, I believe to be crucial when working with refugees. It is so much easier to just become ignorant to this humanitarian crisis, than to face the truth. As Gulwali says: “The enemy of love is doing nothing when you can help your fellow man.” (Passarlay and Ghouri, 2019, p.376) In my newfound judgement, I truly believe social workers are best placed to make a difference. After reflection, three necessary improvements that could be made are: prioritising family reunification, less interrogation, and instant access to mental health services. All of which social workers can actively champion. For me, social workers need to be the leading advocates in refugees thriving, not just surviving. After all, The British Association of Social Workers Ethics state: “Upholding and promoting human dignity and well-being Social workers should respect, uphold and defend each person’s physical, psychological, emotional and spiritual integrity and well-being.” (BASW, 2014, 2.1) We can actively challenge the negative attitudes, the one-dimensional portraits, and the moral panic surrounding displaced people. Most of which are created by false reporting. T Through resilience and random acts of kindness shown by others, Gulwali has gone on to achieve great things: Graduating University, carrying the Olympic torch, and becoming an active campaigner for refugees. He has truly inspired me to become a refugee advocate. On reflection, the power of the book has humanised the refugee crisis for me, and I would never want to be ignorant about the terrible pain they face again. Although in places, the book was harrowing and barbaric, there was also hope and heart-warming kindness. A beautiful Pashtu saying Gulwali quoted in the book: “If the heart is big enough, the space is never too small.” (Passarlay and Ghouri, 2019, p.90) This offered me hope on what we could achieve, by showing more love and compassion to our fellow human beings.
British Association of Social Workers. (2014). The code of ethics for social work: statement of principles. Retrieved from https://www.basw.co.uk/about-basw/code-ethics
Kelly, E. and Bokhari, F. (2012). Safeguarding children from abroad. London: Jessica Kingsley, p.7.
Passarlay, G. and Ghouri, N. (2019). The lightless sky. London: Atlantic Books, p.90.
Passarlay, G. and Ghouri, N. (2019). The lightless sky. London: Atlantic Books, p.107.
Passarlay, G. and Ghouri, N. (2019). The lightless sky. London: Atlantic Books, p.179.
Passarlay, G. and Ghouri, N. (2019). The lightless sky. London: Atlantic Books, p.376.
Sanchez-Cao, E., Kramer, T., & Hodes, M. (2013). Psychological distress and mental health service contact of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children. Child: Care, Health and Development, 39(5), 651-659
The House of Lords Joint Committee on Human Rights (2013).
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989).