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.