Gulwali Passarlay was forced to flee his home in Afghanistan when he was just 12 years old. His debut book, The Lightless Sky, charts his perilous journey over land and sea to Britain, where he finally found safety. A tale of fortitude and friendship told through a child’s eyes, Gulwali’s story casts much needed light on the difficult decisions refugees are forced to take about who to trust and how to stay alive against a backdrop of political indifference.
Here, Gulwali writes exclusively for the Refugee Council about his experience of arriving in Britain as a child: bewildered, frightened and alone.
On the Greek Island of Lesbos, some 2,000 refugees continue to arrive daily, escaping either war or poverty, in some cases both. They come from countries like Syria, Eritrea, Somalia and Afghanistan – where I am from.
Many are families clutching their wet, terrified and exhausted children. We’ve all seen the newspaper images of them landing, looking emotional and tearful but relieved to be alive and to have reached European soil safely.
But in some ways those children are the lucky ones.
In 2014, 1,861 separated or unaccompanied refugee children claimed asylum in the UK. So far this year, over 1,000 children have arrived in Britain alone.
The reality is that the British asylum and social services systems are too complex for most adults to understand, let alone lonely and traumatised children and teenagers. Asylum seeking children can fail applications for something as simple filling out forms incorrectly.
I had just turned 13 when I arrived in Kent. Yet I spent a two year battle with both Kent County Council and the Home Office to prove my age, because they insisted I was 16 and a half. That meant I was housed with adults and not able to access education.
Many young refugees would be broken by this experience and just accept it because they don’t have a choice. But I fought back because I was so desperate to go to school. In the end I won my case, but it took a huge toll on me and I was so depressed I tried to kill myself twice during that period.
I only won my battle because I was able to get some support from Starting Point, a specialist education unit for refugee and children newly arrived from overseas, teachers there helped by carrying out their own independent assessment of my age to prove I was 13. But that unit is now closed due to cuts.
The harsh reality is it can be easier for a financially stricken council to assess young refugees as being over 16 because they don’t have to bear the cost or responsibility of placing them in foster care. Instead they are usually placed in independent living units.
But foster care not only provides solid support within a family home, it offers a kind of cultural fast-tracking. Young people who have supportive environments are far less likely to fall prey to radical ideas or drink and drug abuse. But there is a huge shortage of foster carers willing and able to take refugee children.
I was briefly fostered (only after I had won the age dispute) and it was incredible. On my first night I was shocked and dismayed to see that a man, my new foster father, was cooking dinner for his wife. That’s how pious my views still were, despite having been in the UK two years.
But in that time I’d only met other refugees and battled the Home Office, so I had hardly seen Britain at its welcoming best.
This wonderful couple showed me how people here live; they helped me to understand and learn to love and accept my newly adopted culture. And, best of all, my foster father taught me how to cook. From little acorns like this grow roots. Roots which can help a refugee child like me to belong.