Gulwali Passarlay fled Afghanistan when he was just 12 years old, he has lived in the UK for the last 15 years. Image: Gulwali Passarlay
“When I wrote my book, there weren’t many books of refugees’ stories. People would write about us – journalists and academics – but it’s nice to see that, now, refugees are speaking for themselves.”
Author and activist Gulwali Passarlay is heartened by the rise, over the last five years, of books written by refugees. He believes the stories have been welcomed amid wider public interest in people’s experiences, rather than stories retold through news outlets or political discourse.
The tragic news that 27 people have died after a small boat capsized while trying to cross the channel brought back Passarlay’s own memories of his journey to the UK as a child 14 years ago. Since then, he says, the British government has only made it harder for asylum seekers to reach the UK.
“I don’t want people to die in the middle of the sea in the Channel, I don’t want people to make these desperate journeys. But they’re doing this because they don’t have a better alternative,” he says.
“They died because of our policies. If there was a safer route, this would not have happened.”
Discourse around refugees and asylum seekers is often dehumanising or centred around tragedy, but Passarlay thinks the stories of the people making these perilous journeys can also offer hope and joy.
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“This idea that refugees’ stories are all sad, it’s not true,” he says.
Passarlay’s own story was shared in his book, The Lightless Sky, which is peppered with joy and hope. Of course there are sad stories, he says, but the point of them isn’t to make other people sad.
It’s to make them appreciate their own lives, he says, to put things into perspective, and share the incredible journeys that many have made to get here.
Here are Passarlay’s top five books written by fellow refugees.
The Boy with Two Hearts: A Story of Hope, by Hamed Amiri
Hamed Amiri fled Afghanistan because of the Taliban, traveling through Russia to Europe. Because of his brother’s heart disease, the UK had to be the family’s destination, as only Britain and the UK could provide treatment for the rare condition.
Ultimately this is a heartbreaking story, but it shows the lengths people will go to help those they love. Passarlay found himself in tears watching a stage performance of Hamad’s story, like most of the audience.
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“It’s a story of gratitude to the NHS and the safety of Britain… at least they were able to get their brother here to get him treatment. They would have been heartbroken if he had died and they had not at least tried,” he says.
“The boy with two hearts, it’s a very sad story at the end, and as well as in the beginning, but there’s so much laughter, too.”
In the Wars: From Afghanistan to the UK, a story of conflict, survival and saving lives by Dr Waheed Arian
Dr Waheen Arian is an NHS doctor who spent much of his childhood in refugee camps in Pakistan, having left Kabul as a small child with his family. He was smuggled into the UK aged 15, and was told to set his sights on being a taxi driver.
In this memoir, he talks about his struggles with PTSD and anxiety, and how he managed to become a doctor in the NHS and the founder of a charity that connects doctors in war zones and low-resource countries with their counterparts in the US, UK, Europe and Australia.
“His story is inspiring, he has a lot of wisdom,” says Passarlay. Dr Arian is one of many people “risking their lives in the UK who are from refugee backgrounds, who have struggled to get here and who want to give back.”
Hope Not Fear: Finding My Way from Refugee to Filmmaker to NHS Hospital Cleaner and Activist, by Hassan Akkad
“The third one will be my friend and fellow activist and campaigner Hassan Akkad’s book. He’s a really cool guy.”
Working as a cleaner in the Covid-19 ward of a London hospital, Akkad’s campaigning was pivotal in bringing about the government’s U-turn in their decision to exclude the families of cleaners and porters from its bereavement compensation scheme.
This book is Akkad’s journey to the UK, and his determination to share his eye-witness accounts as both a refugee and a hospital cleaner, through his work as a filmmaker.
We Are Displaced: My Journey and Stories from Refugee Girls Around the World, by Malala Yousafzai
This book is essentially what Malala did next, after she published I Am Malala and became known around the world for her bravery and belief in girls’ education. We Are Displaced is communal storytelling, depicting the experiences of refugee girls around the world and what it means to live a life displaced.
“This is not only her story, but the story of other girls like her, and I think that’s very nice for her to use her platform for others, too,” says Passarlay.
The Lightless Sky, by Gulwali Passarlay
“It took me two years to convince the officials I was an Afghan national,” Passarlay explains. “I was 13 by then. And it took me three years before I was able to be placed by a foster family in Bolton. And I was able to find my brother, which was the main reason I was coming to the UK.”
The Lightless Sky depicts his journey from Afghanistan, across the Mediterranean in a tiny boat, and his twelve-month odyssey across Europe to reach the UK.
Since publishing The Lightless Sky in 2015, Passarlay has visited around 280 towns and cities in the UK to talk about his book, and almost 20 countries.
He has heard from people who were inspired to volunteer with refugees, to travel from the US to Greece to help people landing on the shores of Lesbos, even people who have been inspired to foster unaccompanied children arriving in the UK.
“People tell me that after reading the book they want to take action. They read The Lightless Sky because they felt sympathetic to refugees, But after reading it, they will do something about it.”
And that’s what he hopes these memoirs will achieve, not just for readers to empathise with those who have written them, but to be moved to action to defend their fellow human beings.