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).