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.

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:

Office of National Statistics, Household Composition, Census 2011, retrieved from:

Passarlay, G. (2018), The Lightless Sky, Atlantic Books, London

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