For this extended episode of 10 with Zen, host Helen Woodward talks with Gulwali Passarlay. Gulwali is an Afghan political refugee living in the UK, and you may have seen him talking about his experiences in detail through platforms such as the BBC, CNN, Channel 4, The Guardian, Time Magazine and many more. His book, The Lightless Sky, candidly details his experiences leaving war-torn Afghanistan as an unaccompanied minor.
Gulwali reflects on his experience of arriving in England, how education in Bolton brought hope and opportunity, and praised the teachers who made small but meaningful gestures that left a powerful, lasting impression.
Helen Woodward: First of all, let me give you a big welcome from Zen Educate!
Gulwali Passarlay: Thank you, Helen.
Helen: Can you tell us briefly how it was that you came to be in England?
Gulwali: So I came to the UK as an unaccompanied minor from Afghanistan at the age of 13. I made the journey across half of the world; about 12,000 miles on my own. So when I got to the UK, finally – after a year of being on this journey at the hands of smugglers and traffickers, and being mistreated by authorities and seeing a lot of inhumanity and cruelty along the way – my experience wasn’t over. This was another battle, another struggle, with the Home Office, with Social Services. Although they were nicer compared to the rest of the world, the rest of the countries that I passed through, still there was a system of disbelief. Social Services did not believe that I was 13 at the time, the Home Office did not accept my nationality, that I was an Afghan citizen. So yeah, that’s how I ended up being in the UK. I came here as a refugee and it took me many years before I was able to convince Local Authorities and the Home Office that I was the age that I was, and my nationality was what I was saying it was. I was seen as a suspect, as a criminal, and sadly things have not improved for unaccompanied minors who somehow make it to the UK. And that’s why I do what I do in terms of advocating and campaigning for the rights of refugees, particularly unaccompanied minors, because they have it very tough.
Helen: Yes, I understand. And the two key words amongst that are ‘unaccompanied’ and ‘child’; that you were an unaccompanied minor. So having gone through that incredible journey – and the trauma of being at the hands of smugglers, and the separation – actually, being unaccompanied when you arrived in England was really significant for you, I’m sure.
Gulwali: Exactly, and even before that, growing up in a warzone, that impacts you and traumatises you, mentally and emotionally. The least we should be doing is showing compassion, solidarity and empathy towards these people, and helping and supporting them in any way we can. We should not make it more difficult for them in the way that the Home Office and Social Services did for me.
Helen: Absolutely. And another key word in there: ‘compassion’. So, in particular, we’re interested to hear about your experiences at school. Can you tell us about a time when you were at school and a teacher or Teaching Assistant really helped you? And I’m interested to know exactly what they said and what they did that you found helpful at that time.
Gulwali: I had to fight to go to school. I read somewhere, when we wrote The Lightless Sky, where someone said that I went to a good school. I wasn’t really sent to a good school! I had to fight for it for over three years to be able to go to a school and then, yes, I went to a very good school in Bolton that was very diverse and multicultural, and I had a great time. But the first few weeks were difficult. I felt alienated. I felt unwelcome, not so much by teachers but by students. Once the teachers understood my circumstances and situation, they were very, very supportive. There was one gentleman who interviewed me for this school at my previous centre/unit, and he understood my background, story and situation. So he was there introducing me to my teachers and form tutors, and people who were specifically supporting children from a disadvantaged background, perhaps unaccompanied minors, asylum seekers. So there was a support mechanism in place. There was a lady called Mrs Bolton, she was really wonderful. She literally was just there giving me emotional help and support whenever I was feeling down. So it was not so much academic support which I needed the most. I didn’t want to be treated as unique, I wanted to be treated as a normal young person, but I want the teachers to understand my struggles somewhat and that I’m not just like other kids, because of the language barriers and because of the experiences that I had, and so things will be difficult to me, because it’s going to be harder for me than other students. So there was a lot of understanding from teachers, from Heads of Year, from assistant teachers, and from pastoral care; people who were there to support us with our wellbeing, emotional wellbeing and mental health. So yes, I got a lot of help, and because I was very active and engaged with school life thereafter, I got to know people. And that helped. So I never really had time where I just had to be on my own and stressed out on my own and have depression and anxiety; I was always doing things. And I was always able to approach people. Being able to approach people, go into people’s offices, talk to people during breaks and lunch whenever I needed help – that was really useful to me.
Helen: OK, that’s really helpful to understand. I’m very interested in your comment that people understood you and offered you emotional support. What was it that people did that helped you know that they understood?
Gulwali: It’s little things! I remember I used to go to Mrs Bolton’s office, and she’d make me a cup of tea. At school there’s rules like ‘you’re not supposed to make cups of tea for students’, but I think there’s a difference. She’d make me hot chocolate and just talk to me and hear me out if there’s something troubling me, something bothering me. Sorry, I’m giving you long answers because this is a complex situation! And so yes, and I remember other things. For example, the school – even though it was a very diverse and multicultural school, they had a lot of students from migrant backgrounds – they put me in a German class, when I actually needed to learn English. So there were a lot of things that didn’t go to plan early on. But then, they were able to understand my story and background. And there were other people in my situation, as well. The teachers, once they understood that I was very hard working and ambitious, I wanted to learn, I was a very good student, and that I made an effort, I was dedicated. And so a lot of teachers became fond of me, they started liking me, because I wanted to get on with it. And also the school did give me an opportunity to actually go and study different subjects like Geography, Religious Studies, IT, so these subjects were helping me to improve my English as well. And I was always able to go to a head of subject, Heads of Year, and say ‘I want to be given an opportunity to do my GCSEs.’ So the teachers and people in positions of authority listened to me, and most of these people believed in me. So that was important to me; that they believed in me and even though the school didn’t think I’d be doing my GCSEs, I ended up with 10. And there were individuals in there who said ‘you know, Gulwali, you can do this. We’ll put you forward, we’ll give you the chances.’ And they helped me with 1:1 tuition, they put me forward for extra help, and allowed me to actually leave class to do things that I needed to focus on. For example, I used to leave PE, my physical education, which was important! But I used to leave to do English instead. So all these little things were done for me which helped me to overcome these challenges and adversities to achieve and succeed. I think understanding, building that relationship of trust, I think that was important because you’re kind of estranged. There were over a thousand students. And it was kind of special to see that the teachers were giving me their time and their attention. I just have so many wonderful opportunities at that place. And the school gave me a chance, and I was able to prove them right.
Helen: I’m really taken by how it’s the very small things that have really mattered to you. Really small things like someone making you a cup of tea, somebody making you a hot chocolate, and the importance of listening. Those are things that you’ve conveyed very powerfully, so thank you so much for that!
Gulwali, can you tell us about a time when someone was unhelpful? An adult, or a teacher. I’m asking you this because it’s so important that we learn and hear how the consequences of our actions and behaviour can sometimes unintentionally just be really unhelpful.
Gulwali: Yeah, as I say I had a really positive experience. There’s one example that I remember – maybe there are small things that I’ve forgotten, because I was just focusing on the positive – but there was this one lady who used to work in the office, she was an administrator. We became friends later on, obviously! But at the time, I remember once during work experience or something where I was able to get permission to leave school to go to my previous school. And I was able to get permission from one of the directors, so I got to know the school leadership team people. I met this lady who worked in the reception, I said to her ‘can I go?’ and she said ‘no’. But I still went, because I had permission from someone above! The second I came back to school, she took me into the office and she was very, very mean to me. I had so many badges and I was given a lot of stuff, and I had a prestigious school, and she said to me ‘look, just because you are Gulwali doesn’t mean you can do whatever you want to do! I can just take away all your badges and make your life miserable’. She was going really hard on me, and she was upset that I went against her authority and instructions. I did explain that I had permission and everything but she wasn’t listening. I got really upset, and actually cried, and went to Mrs Bolton and cried in her office and she was very understanding. I got the headteacher involved, and I got the Vice Principle involved, and this lady had to apologise to me. Because she was just being too drastic and dramatic. The one day I went away, ok! I shouldn’t have, maybe, I didn’t know all the rules or anything, I needed permission from one of the directors. As an Afghan, when somebody speaks to you, you look down out of respect. I looked down, and she was telling me to look up to her, to look into her eyes. She wouldn’t understand that I was doing this out of respect and shame, and I felt embarrassed and that I’d done something really big. But I hadn’t! It was something very small, and permission was already given to me. She said not to go, and I still went. She could have done it in a more humane way, a nice way. But then I was able to go to people who were able to comfort me and give me a word of caution and advice and support. As I said, I don’t think we should treat asylum seekers and refugees in any special way, I want them to understand that our experiences, our circumstances, our situations are very different to the ‘ordinary’ students – and that sometimes you need to show discretion. Ultimately, it’s maybe good to hear the person out.
Helen: Thank you for telling us that story. Actually, you’ve answered my next question: what should this person have done instead? And you’ve already told us; they could have asked a question, they could have listened. There was an issue about communication, wasn’t there? But I’ve heard a key message there about the importance of discretion, communication and more understanding about the very particular needs of children who are refugees.
Gulwali, we have lots of staff that work with us and this is a chance to share with all the people that are going to be listening to this: what do you wish that the Teaching Assistants at your school had heard from somebody like you before you arrived?
Gulwali: I feel like, as I say, my teachers were really, really nice, caring and concerned people. But I feel like they had very little understanding of what it means to be a refugee, what it means to be an asylum seeker, an immigrant – even though they had a lot of people in their schools from these backgrounds. When I was able to actually share my story, I went and did assemblies with my broken English because it was important to me. I was kind of upset and a little bit angry to see the children not respecting teachers, taking education for granted. So I wanted to get the record straight and say ‘look, I went to a school with very little facilities but still wanted to learn and respect our teachers and children with utmost dignity and respect’. When you’re in that situation, in legal limbo, so many things going on outside school, school is the only positive thing in your life. If people are making it difficult for you, either students or teachers, then your whole life is a misery. So you need the teachers to be understanding, supportive, and compassionate, ensuring solidarity. I remember when I was doing my refugee status application. I had most of my teachers write me letters of support. So I think in some schools, it may not be allowed, I don’t know because there’s all sorts of rules around things. But most of my heads of subjects, year groups and a lot of people in school actually wrote me letters of support. That was very touching, that they went that extra mile. And I remember most of these teachers would have extra revision classes for me and for us, people in similar situations. The teachers were pleased that we wanted to learn and wanted to engage. So I would say to teachers and TAs in similar situations who work with refugees and unaccompanied minors, migrants and asylum seekers to give them time. I had to catch up on work for two years. It needs a lot of time! But you need encouragement, you need positive words. If you have a student in your class who for whatever reason is struggling, you could hopefully know that because of their background, because of their experiences, they are struggling. So you could be more mindful of that. Because I’ve been to classes where a student was treated really badly, they thought they were just normal students when in fact they weren’t – they had baggage, anxiety, depression and emotional issues and problems at home. And so these children have so many challenges, so please have empathy. That definitely helps. In my experience, it was positive because it was in a situation between me and the teachers, it was a two-way process.
Helen: That’s so helpful, you’ve talked about lots of really key things there like empathy and listening and understanding. I’m really conscious there’s so much more that we need to learn about the experience of children who arrive in our schools in traumatic circumstances. Gulwali, can you tell us about your book?
Gulwali: Yeah, so The Lightless Sky was written in 2015, since then it’s been published in 7 countries and 6 languages! I never thought I’d write a book. The book is about my story, my experiences, of leaving Afghanistan and my challenge, why I left the conflict, and how I managed to get to the UK. There’s a lot in there about schooling, about what helped, what didn’t help, my education and going through college and university, and how education has been the most important thing to me. For most refugees, education is really a push. They want to get education, they want to achieve and be successful. They have hopes and dreams and aspirations, so I encourage everyone to read it, to better understand our experiences, struggles, stories and journeys. So for them to support us in a more inclusive and helpful way.
Helen: That’s great, thank you. And we will be encouraging people to read it as well, Gulwali! Just last of all, could you tell us about Olive Branch Fostering?
Gulwali: So Olive Branch Fostering I got involved with 5 or 6 years ago, before the book actually. I knew this gentleman who wanted to set up this agency and because of my own experiences of being fostered for 2 years whilst I was at my sixth form college and because of having a refugee background, he was very keen to have somebody on the panel who has experience of being fostered with a migrant background. In the North West, there’s a lot of referrals for unaccompanied minors to be housed with foster families. So the agency is based in Manchester, and we have a very diverse group of foster carers as well as children, and I’ve been involved with them as a panel member for the last 5 or 6 years. It’s been a great experience seeing why people want to foster and how they want to have an impact and make a difference. It’s really wonderful. We sometimes feel powerless and hopeless, because the number of people there are 80 million people displaced: half of them are children. If you have a room and a place in your heart, foster a refugee child. Write to your MP, go on demonstrations, help them with English classes, help them with the language. All these little things help. Help them with their asylum applications, go with them for a coffee, show them around your area, help them with accessing healthcare. In my school I was able to get help through the school nurse and through Teaching Assistants, and people through outside things. I was signposted to the youth services, I got involved with the local youth council and the UK Youth Parliament, other charities and other groups through school. So school can play a very crucial and positive role, not only in your education but for outside activities, and can help introduce you to the right people.
Helen: Gulwali, that’s so inspiring. Thank you so much for your time with us today!
Gulwali: Thanks for having me! Can I just say I have huge admiration and respect for teachers. We wouldn’t have doctors and scientists, engineers etc. without teachers! Teachers are very special people, I hope we can pay them well, I hope we can look after them better. But I feel that teachers can do so much more if you give them the freedom to go out there and to educate kids and to give them that awareness about social justice and these issues that are important. I thank all your teachers for doing what they do and help people like me be able to communicate!
Helen: Thank you so much, it’s been brilliant to talk with you today! I’m moved and inspired, so thank you so much, Gulwali!
Find out about Olive Branch Fostering
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