Review of The Lightless Sky by a social worker student.

Book 📚 review by Katie at UoS.

Gulwali Passarlay, a young Afghan man, tells his tale of a dangerous and exhausting journey from war stricken Afghanistan to the UK. You would be mistaken for thinking that this book is just that; a fictitious tale. However, this account is very real. It is very real of not only Gulwali’s struggle, but also the struggles that a shocking amount of refugees/asylum seekers have faced, and continue to face every single day. 

Gulwali was a very privileged young boy. He was the son of a Doctor, part of a loving family and had the most wonderful of relationships with his grandparents, especially his Grandfather. His life was suddenly turned upside down when his grand father and father were killed by US forces. After this the Taliban tried to recruit him and his brother to join the cause, trying to convince him to seek revenge for his fathers and grand fathers death, in the form of fighting the Holy war with them. 

His mother feared for both their lives and knew the dangers they’d face if the Taliban had their wish. It is then she makes the brave and heart-breaking decision the send the twelve-year-old Gulwarli and his younger brother Hazrat away, with the hope they will find safety and solace away from the dangers of Afghanistan. From here on Gulwali recounts his what can only be described as a miracle journey, sometimes taking one-step forward, two steps back, but never losing faith or conviction in the task ahead. Gulwali is an amazing young man who has overcome such adversity. But his story is not the only one of its kind. Thousands of unaccompanied children are misplaced every year due to circumstances they can’t control. In 2018, 19 700 asylum seekers applying for asylum in the countries of the EU were considered to be unaccompanied minors. ( Eurostat, newsrelease, 2019)

Gulwali is one of the ‘lucky’ ones. 

There are countless things you can take from this book, and a lot of food for thought. Whether it is immigration issues, cultural differences, or lack of understanding when it comes to both. If you’re one of many who hasn’t really given these very relevant issues a second thought, then this book is a real eye opener. 

One thing that really struck me while reading this is how Gulwali never lost his Muslim faith. For such a young boy, with no real guidance, just how did he manage to believe God was by his side? 

Many others would reject the existence of a God if they endured what Gulwali had, but somehow he kept God with him and never once questioned whether he was really looking down on him. I find it amazing the comfort he found with his faith. Even when he went without food for days upon end, not knowing when his next bite would come, he fasted for Ramadan. It wasn’t a chore, much like when I had to give up chocolate for lent as a child, but something truly important to him. 

“But I knew Allah was always with me. I prayed often, I talked to God, I found comfort in my faith.” (Passarlay, 2015) 

According to GOV, 71.7% of children and family social workers employed by local authorities in England are White British. The Department of Education states 85% of children and family social workers are female. What does this mean for practice? How does a field dominated by white British women, cater to and for the needs of unaccompanied refugee children, more often that not, young boys? 

To be successful social workers we need to be culturally sensitive, have a reservoir of knowledge, and must always be ready and willing to learn. I had the privilege to hear Gulwali Passarlay talk about this book, and he described his social workers in Kent as worse than the people smugglers he encountered. How on earth has this been allowed to happen? The very people put in place to safeguard and ensure Gulwali’s wellbeing let him down so massively. Gulwali suspects there was underlying racism that played a part in his treatment. To think that there is such attitudes of racism or prejudice in social work may be hard to believe, but is something that exists and should not be shyed away from. 

We all can see how race tensions and racism is prevalent today in England. This suggests to me that there is something is lacking in education. It therefore is inevitable, that some of these attitudes may find themselves making their way into social work. Small they may be, they are still present. 

First I think of England’s in particular attitude towards Religion specifically. England has slowly moved away from the church and has become a more secular society. We are a Christian country but only a small minority of Britons practice the religion they’ve been born into. This growing lack of importance to religion in this country might make us as social work dismiss service users religions and not see the importance of it. How do we address this? To me it suggests there needs to be more sensitivity when it come to religious beliefs and/or spirituality. It is important to remember how important religion and culture are to the people we may be working with. Especially as more and more unaccompanied children are coming into the UK from countries where religion is embedded into culture. For some it can the only thing they have brought with them, much like Gulwarli.

“Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.”(Marx 1844)

Marx was a criticiser of religion, and believed religion was a veil when true happiness could not be found. However it is well known that people find comfort in religion, or turn to religion in times of great difficulty. People look for coping mechanisms and strength in hard times. Some find this in religion (Pargament’s Theory of religious coping). Gulwali certainly did, and it helped him fight to make his way to the UK. 

The theory of intersectionality (Kimberlé Crenshaw 1989) suggests people have multiple identities that may overlap and face discrimination ie, race, religion, class, sexuality etc, and should be looked at as a whole rather than focusing on one characteristic. This more holistic way of looking at someone would help us to become better social workers. Not merely focusing on a child as just a child, but as a whole person with their own mind, thoughts and feelings. This theory certainly would help us to recognise the different components of a child regarding religion and help us to cater for the child in a competent and anti-oppressive way.

The Professional Capabilities Framework mentions Values and Ethics, Diversity and equalities, and Rights and justice. Social workers should use this as a guide during practise and aim to achieve all principles. Diversity and equalities is the principle that comes to mind when I think of Gulwarli. If Gulwarli’s social workers possessed these principles, maybe he wouldn’t have had the experience he did hen he came over to the UK.

“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” (Article 18, UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948)

Social work is linked directly to this article, as one of the main roles is to fight for people’s freedoms and social justice. This again falls under the principles of the PCF, and within our code of ethics where discrimination against people with different cultures, religious beliefs etc should be fought against.

Respect and understanding towards service users different religions and cultural norms is massively important in being able to build relationships. Seeing someone as a whole person rather than what you can merely see.

I think more learning towards sensitivity and understanding needs to be taught, to make social workers more equipt and competent. We need to be able to build relationships, trust and understanding with our service users, and not inhibit them because of our own beliefs or lack there of. It is inevitable that some social workers may have grown up with certain prejudices to individuals regarding religion, race, class etc. Especially when the vast majority of British social workers are of caucasian ethnicity, and may not have a deep understanding of the privilege that they have along with the discrimination that others may experience due to their religions. Although none of these have a place in Social work it is important to challenge the prejudices and try to minimise the complications for future practice.


Eurostat, news release (2019) Asylum applicants considered to be unaccompanied minors:

Gulwarli Passarlay (2015) The Lightless Sky: London, Great Britain: Atlantic Books

GOV.UK (2019) Ethnicity Facts and Figures:

Department for Education (2018) Experimental statistics: Children and family social work workforce in England, year ending 30 September 2017:

Karl Marx (1843) A contribution to the critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right: Oxford University Press 1970

Kimberle Crenshaw (1989) Demarginalizing the Intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory and anti-racist politics: University of Chicago Legal Forum

UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) Article 18

Book Review of ‘The Lightless Sky’.

Book Review of ‘The Lightless Sky’.

By Sally from Salford university, i will share some reviews from social work students who have read The Lightless Sky as part of their studies.

Everyone should read ‘The Lightless Sky’ (Passarlay with Ghouri, 2015), the enlightening, true story of Gulwali Passarlay’s horrific childhood journey to reach safety. It has particular relevance for Social Work staff and those supporting people who are seeking asylum. When Gulwali is twelve years old he lives in Pashtu, Afghanistan, which is under Taliban control. After the invasion of Afghanistan by the USA, Gulwali’s mother sends him and his brother to the West in order to reach safety. Gulwali has to develop self-reliance and demonstrates high levels of resilience. He is imprisoned, placed in detention centres and experiences extremely traumatic events, such as suffering chemical burns from travelling in a van with a poisonous substance. However, the book is also about “faith, hope and optimism… a story of kindness, love, humanity and brotherhood.” (Passarlay with Ghouri 2015, p.374). This is evidenced by the bonds Gulwali describes he makes with others on his journey and the warmth that is shown to him by individuals. This must not minimise the trauma of his experience and Gulwali begins to develop night terrors towards the end of his journey. The novel is well written in an engaging style and reminds us that life is full of uncertainty. The book leads us to question the nature of the world, of states and borders, but also the systems and structures that are supposedly in place to help others.

Confusion, surprise, shock, awe and shame are just some of the feelings I experienced when reading the novel. At the outset, ‘The Lightless Sky’ (Passarlay with Ghouri, 2015) threw me into confusion. I immediately liked the protagonist: a Taliban sympathiser, a pious child. The rhetoric in the UK is currently around a ‘war on terror’ (Malik, 2018). Therefore, warming towards a potential ‘enemy’ created some cognitive dissonance.

Gulwali’s story raises several themes which are relevant to social work. Some of these are: oppression, immigration, trauma, reflective practice, the construction of childhood, the role of women and solidarity (Passarlay with Ghouri, 2015). It also raised questions for myself, two examples of which are: How can states exercise more compassion in relation to those seeking asylum? and, what is the role of social work in relation to immigration and oppression?

I shall discuss the theme of oppression while linking this to emotions I have felt while reading the novel. Oppression occurs when one individual or group exercise power over another individual or group to the advantage of the more powerful. Oppression is unjust or unfair and closely linked to the concepts of discrimination and prejudice.

Initially, I was surprised to realise Gulwali’s experience of UK immigration services seemed much more positive than in any other country he travelled through. I was surprised because, like Mort (2019) I was under the impression that we are living in a time where anti-migrant ideas are the dominant discourse within the UK. However, the UK can be both more positive than other countries and at the same time needing to go much further to protect people seeking refuge. For some time I have failed to understand how people can treat those fleeing for their lives in inhumane ways.

It can be argued the UK Government is working against social work values (British Association of Social Workers (BASW), 2014) without enough regard to the promotion of social justice (Thompson, 2017) in relation to asylum. This is contributing to the dehumanization (Freire, 1970, 1993) of those seeking asylum in the UK. Dehumanization is described as a process where a persons’ identity is lost and oppressed. One example of this is when Gulwali’s age is redefined by Social Services after a subjective test. Gulwali is ‘processed’ and he notes: “bureaucrats were now in control of my life” (Passarlay with Ghouri, 2015, p.323). I felt shame that we could treat Gulwali (or anyone) in this way.

It is not just the state that contributes to dehumanization in this book. Oppression is compounded by people traffickers, peer group and the state. Gulwali and his friends are often treated as commodities by smugglers, where smugglers can be seen as both oppressors and oppressed (Freire, 1970, 1993). Gulwali and his friends are forced into a competitive survival culture where they are left no choice but to prioritise themselves over others. Hardly any of the countries Gulwali travels through offer him the opportunity to seek asylum, until he reaches the UK. Agents of government such as police, almost wholly throughout his journey, are to be feared rather than a source of help.

Gulwali allows us in to see his world and create an understanding of the multiple modes of oppression he has. Some of these are his childhood and his asylum seeking status. In the UK, children have traditionally less power than adults in law and British citizens have more power than people seeking asylum. As a child seeking asylum in the UK, Gulwali would be more protected than an adult seeking asylum because of the United Nations Convention of the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), (1989). Ang (2019) discusses how it has been raised in the UNCRC, (1989) that people in Gulwali’s position must be perceived as “children first, migrants second” (Ang, 2019, p.118). Law compels social work to put people into categories without perhaps seeing the complex situated identities that Gulwali possesses. UK social services redefine Gulwali’s age as an adult after the age assessment. This can be seen as oppressive as he is not believed and not treated justly.

I felt an enormous amount of admiration for Gulwali in reading his story. When I was twelve years old I had not been out of the UK. I do not think I would have coped with a journey similar to his, but he was forced to survive. We can use the theory of intersectionality to perceive Gulwali holistically (Hill Collins, 2000) and challenge preconceived ideas and prejudice. Intersectionality refers to how we all have many identities that merge to create an individual oppression (for example), greater than the sum of identities. Gulwali allows us to identify with him and therefore we can feel the oppression, the dehumanization he goes through.  

Gupta (2019) discusses how it can be challenging for social workers, with values around social justice, to work within the immigration system. It can be argued that whether an individual is a child or an adult we should see people through a person centred gaze (Gupta, 2019).

Nayak (2019) suggests:

The vicarious trauma experienced by social workers in working with the inhumanity of migration creates a hypervigilance of borders that can be put to use in recognising, rather than disavowing, hidden and taken-for-grated borders that scaffold oppressive discursive practices (Nayak, 2019, p.43)

Nayak goes on to argue for a collective approach rather than a Neoliberal, individualistic ideology, in questioning the way we work to dismantle hierarchy and challenge oppression.   A practical solution is suggested by King (2019). She argues that social workers should be independent of the Local Authority to create more autonomy in the role. She argues for a social work model that can move beyond borders, both ideological and national. Gulwali has a relatively more positive experience of migration in the UK, than in other countries, but this does not mean we can rest. There is plenty more we can achieve and social work certainly has a strong role it could play.

Gulwali’s story has brought to life a current human and societal problem. I have learnt that I have passion about protecting the rights of individuals seeking asylum in the UK. ‘The Lightless Sky’ has enabled me to reflect on the current UK system and also the actions of other states in the World. It has brought me sadness to realise that people and states can seem selfish but also that the situation around immigration and oppression is complex. There can be no easy answers. Using this novel as a springboard I have thought deeply about laws surrounding asylum, in particular that people seeking asylum are unable to work in the UK. This policy can be seen as contributing to oppression, leaving people seeking asylum in limbo, unable to begin a engage in a life here (Refugee Council, 2019).

Social workers have a powerful position. They can support people to fight for their rights, but conversely, could contribute to oppression. It is important that we take lessons of reflection from Gulwali and challenge the existing systems and structures where possible if these are discriminatory. However, this may not always be possible due to the role of the individual social worker or the organisation they work for. Social work can be seen as a contested profession (Horner, 2019) with multiple roles it can play, with competing demands from state, society, organisation and individual. As social work professionals we should protect the individual first, within law, where we can work towards a society in the UK of equitable and compassionate relations.


Ang, J. (2019) Working with Separated Children and Young People seeking International Protection: What Social Workers Need to Know. In Wroe, L., Larkin, R. and Maglajli, R. A. (Eds.), Social Work with Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants: -Theory and Skills for Practice (pp. 117-142) London, Jessica Kingsley -Publishers.

British Association of Social Workers. (2014) The Code of Ethics for Social Work: Statement of Principles. Retrieved from

Freire, P. (1970, 1993) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. London, Penguin

Gupta, A. (2019) Asylum Seeking Children IN and Leaving Care: Practice and Policy Issues. In Wroe, L., Larkin, R. and Maglajli, R. A. (Eds.), Social Work with Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants: -Theory and Skills for Practice (pp. 143-162) London, Jessica Kingsley -Publishers.

Hill Collins, P. (2000) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment. 2nd ed. London, Routledge

Horner, N. (2019) What is Social Work: Contexts and Perspectives. (5th Edition). London, Sage.

King, L. (2019) Social Work Without Borders: An Interview with Lynn King. In Wroe, L., Larkin, R. and Maglajli, R. A. (Eds.), Social Work with Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants: Theory and Skills for Practice (pp. 27-37) London, Jessica Kingsley -Publishers.

Malik, K. (2018, 25 November). The war on terror continues and still no one counts the costs. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Mort, L. (2019) Migration and Austerity. In Wroe, L., Larkin, R. and Maglajli, R. A. (Eds.), Social Work with Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants: Theory and Skills for Practice (pp. 57-74) London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Nayak, S (2019) Black Feminist Diaspora Spaces of Social Work Critical Reflexivity. In Wroe, L., Larkin, R. and Maglajli, R. A. (Eds.), Social Work with Refugees, Asylum Seekers and Migrants: Theory and Skills for Practice (pp. 41-55) London, Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Passarlay, G. with Ghouri, N. (2015) The Lightless Sky: My journey to safety as a child refugee. London, Atlantic Books.

Refugee Council. (2019)  accessed 03/11/2019 12:37

Thompson, N. (2017) Social Problems and Social Justice. London, Red Globe Press.

United Nations. (1989) United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Retrieved from

The Lightless Sky: An Afghan Refugee Boy’s Journey of Escape to A New Life in Britain eBook: Passarlay, Gulwali, Ghouri, Nadene: Kindle Store

The Lightless Sky: An Afghan Refugee Boy’s Journey of Escape to A New Life in Britain eBook: Passarlay, Gulwali, Ghouri, Nadene: Kindle Store
— Read on

The Lightless Sky is £1.80 on kindle we have an ebook promotion for a few days. Please get one if you haven’t read yet or you could also gifted to friends. Many thanks for your support. #WithRefugees #TheLightlessSky

Inside stories: Gulwali Passarlay – St Ethelburga’s

“When you’re a refugee you don’t have the privileges and luxuries in life to have a home to stay in, go shopping, and have everything you need. We need to come out of this being more humane, come out of it with more empathy for those who are suffering and show solidarity with our fellow human beings”.
— Read on