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.

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

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

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