Gulwali Passarlay is an author, TEDx speaker, activist and politics major. He is a commissioner for Children’s Commision on Child Poverty, and has been a representative of the National Scrutiny Group. He is also a refugee. At the age of 12, Gulwali’s mother paid smugglers to take him and his brother from Afghanistan to Europe, in a twelve-month odyssey through which he endured time in prisons, starvation, cruelty, and violence. Whilst Gulwali has achieved many extraordinary things since then, it is these experiences of migration that have made him into the man he is today.
While the media have written extensively about these experiences, his opinion on migration and refugee inclusion have hitherto largely remained uncovered. To TERN and RefuTales, Gulwali talked in-depth about opportunities and barriers towards global citizenship.
More than just a refugee
There is far more to Gulwali than being a refugee. He explains that his refugee status is only a small part of his identity, despite the amount of attention the media gives to his past. ‘It’s who I am, fine… but there’s more to me’, he says. ‘I’m a student, I’m an activist, I’m an author.’ Despite his overwhelming success since arriving in the UK, the media narrative often focuses on his legal status. Having read articles about Gulwali’s story, I can’t help but feel like the media attention to his past is an attempt to make his story fit with the narrative of refugees as people to pity. With a flicker of frustration in his usual calm demeanour, Gulwali agrees. ‘Sometimes I feel that the media are reluctant to write ‘author’ because they like to have a certain image of refugees, you know. That refugees are lesser people… people in need, not people who can offer.’
“[A refugee] is who I am, fine… but there’s more to me”
Gulwali has certainly offered. He has given TEDx talks, been involved in activism, and has written a book about his life in Afghanistan and subsequent life as a refugee, as well as working as a student at the University of Manchester. Gulwali has offered more than most of us do in a lifetime.
When asked what factors have contributed to his success, he attributes it to the experiences that he has had. Gulwali considers his childhood in Afghanistan, as well journey to refuge, to have helped develop the characteristics that have enabled him to succeed so incredibly, despite the odds. He attributes his determination, in part, to his culture – an ‘Afghan notion of pride’. When travelling across Europe at the age of twelve, he knew that it would be considered ‘shameful and dishonouring to go back to Afghanistan, to go against my mother’s word… to stay with each other, don’t let go of each other’s hands, and don’t come back’.
“We were all in the same boat, not only in a literal sense, but also trying to survive”
It’s not just his time in Afghanistan that allowed him to develop skills that have come in use in later life. Throughout his journey across Europe, Gulwali considers himself to have learnt and developed more skills that have shaped who he is today. In watching people’s different reactions to the traumatising situation they had been forced to enter, Gulwali thinks this helped him develop a deeper understanding of human nature . ‘In theory we were all in the same boat, not only in a literal sense, but also we were in the same boat of trying to get to safety and trying to survive.’ He saw first-hand ‘how caring and loving a human could be, but sometimes how desperate [people could be] – where you couldn’t care less about anyone, and would do anything to make it.’
Attempts on own life in UK
Unfortunately, arriving in the UK wasn’t the end. With a hint of dismay, Gulwali acknowledges that his experiences of the detention centres were, in some senses, even harder to cope with. Rather than being in the hands of traffickers, who he expected would not respect his human dignity, he was in the hands of government officials who were supposed to be helping him, but failed. ‘The authorities, the asylum system, they made me feel less of a human. Things became so bad that I felt like life was not worth living’. Gulwali was told he was not thirteen, but sixteen and a half. He was housed with adult men until he was fifteen. During these two years, he made two attempts on his life. In this isolated time, Gulwali explains that he grew even more as a person, particularly with regards to negotiation. He notes, in a fittingly calm tone, ‘you can’t get things done by anger and frustration and shouting.’
Would he have taken the journey again, knowing the trauma he would have to experience? Regardless of how distressing the experience was, Gulwali still maintains that it has benefited him. ‘It has made me who I am today. I mean, I wish I didn’t have to make the journey.. but having an experience is one thing, and what you make of that experience is another, and I think using a negative experience for something positive is really, really beneficial. So I think it has made me more resilient.’
“Why can’t we use this opportunity as an investment rather than a burden?”
Gulwali maintains that he is not unique in his resilience and drive, but that these are characteristics that are quite commonly cultivated in refugees. ‘A majority of refugees, almost all refugees, are resilient…’, says Gulwali. ‘We leave our countries, our homes, everything we love, everything we know for a reason’, the reason being to reach a place of refuge. Why can’t we use this opportunity as an investment rather than a burden? Instead of talking about who is a refugee or an economic migrant, ‘let’s give people hope in life and treat them as human beings… If we give the right support and guidance and help, if we direct them to the right source, refugees have brilliant ideas and dreams’.
Repressed by different colour passport
It has also made him think of himself as a global citizen, his journey revealing the truly jarring relationship that nationality and mobility can share, and leaving a permanent sense of frustration with passports and the notion of citizenship. Firstly, being a refugee, he considers himself as somewhere in-between Afghan and British, causing what could be termed a passport identity crisis. Secondly, he expresses discontent with passports due to a more practical problem. His Afghan passport allows him to travel to 25 countries without a visa, but a British passport allows travel to 173 countries, meaning he faces far more restriction due to where he happened to be born – an ‘accident of birth.’
“Why am I seen as different to you? Why do I have a different coloured passport?”
To facilitate movement across countries, Gulwali has been issued a travel document. Reaching into his pocket to extract it, he looks at the travel document and looks at it for some time. ‘What this represents for me is, in a sense, a freedom to travel… but also limitation, because wherever I go, people [don’t] recognise it. I go to the States, and thankfully I’ve got a visa. I was speaking to a travel attendant and she said she didn’t recognise [the travel document]’ He waited for half an hour, during which time he was asked if he was part of a terrorist organisation. ‘Every time I come back to the UK I’m questioned. Every time I go [to] other places, they question me… I feel like there’s an unfairness… I feel like it represents a repression. Why am I seen as different to you? Why do I have a different coloured passport?’.
Refugees don’t want to be a burden
Listening to Gulwali speak, it’s not hard to understand his success as a speaker and writer. Highly articulate, when talking about his life in Afghanistan and the awful experiences whilst seeking asylum, he paints a vivid picture, not only of his experiences, but of his own personal characteristics. Determination flows from his words, and it’s contagious.
It’s not just myself who can’t help but feel inspired by Gulwali. Talking about the motivation for writing his book, Gulwali explains how he hoped to ‘inspire people, to inspire people in Britain and to show them that they are fortunate to be born here and they should not take that for granted, the opportunities and the education they have, but also to inspire refugees that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. There are messages for school children, messages for refugees, messages for governments and states and authorities’. The main message, Gulwali hopes, is that refugees are people with much to give, rather than burdens.
From his experience, refugees need not be considered a burden – they have many skills to offer
Knowing firsthand the personal characters of refugees and their willingness to give back to host countries, he knows that the negative portrayals of refugees haven’t come from accurate assessments of the characters of the majority of them. From his experience, refugees need not be considered a burden – they have many skills to offer, particularly entrepreneurial skills. The journey builds determination, and from their home countries they are responsible from a young age. Business mindedness is taught early in many of their cultures – Gulwali, for example, helped run a tailor shop at the age of six. He also notes that many refugees are instilled with a sense of obligation. From his own experience, he wakes up every day wanting to give something to Britain. ‘I want to be grateful for the chance of being here.’ Other refugees have a similar mindset. ‘They don’t want to be a burden.’
Advice to other newcomers
Unfortunately, Gulwali notes that there a lot of barriers in place to working as a refugee, not just self-belief. ‘I think in the UK it’s very difficult for refugees to start businesses… Forget starting a business, asylum seekers aren’t even allowed to work. There are so many barriers and obstacles to becoming active and engaged in the economy.’
“Be aspirational, be ambitious, don’t pity yourself and think you will not achieve”
His advice to other refugees? Hope is a good starting point. ‘We have to believe in ourselves. We have to work hard to educate ourselves and hopefully find the right contact. Be aspirational, be ambitious, don’t pity yourself and think you will not achieve.’ And, most importantly, ‘Be whatever you want to be, as long as you want to be something.’