From the New York Post
By Maureen Callahan
He found himself a refugee at 12 years old, somehow crammed onto a boat with no toilets, shoulder-to-shoulder with men who had soiled themselves. There was no room to sleep, no food and very little water. This boy had never seen the ocean before. Yet here he was, three days at sea now, and this ramshackle boat, tossed in heavy winds and high waves, began sinking.
Grown men began screaming for help. Passengers locked below deck pounded against the door. The captain fired a gun in the air. The boy began crying, out loud, for his mother.
“Each rushing wave swung me back and forth like a rag doll,” he recalls. “It seemed sure that the boat would overturn. For a brief, strange moment, I was calm, resigned: “So…this is how you will die.”
‘An extremely pious child’
In his new memoir “The Lightless Sky,” Gulwali Passarlay recounts his harrowing life as a young, unwilling refugee. But he doesn’t just chronicle the avarice and amorality of human traffickers or the mortal risks posed to any child or adult in flight. He also, quite uncomfortably, talks about his religious and philosophical journey from East to West.
Passarlay was born in 1994 in eastern Afghanistan, one year after the Taliban had retaken control. This was not a problem for his family, who belonged to the like-minded Pashtun tribe.
Passarlay’s mother, he writes, enjoyed the status of being his father’s “senior wife,” yet all the women were expected to wash the laundry by hand — there was little electricity — to collect wood and water, to have hot bread and tea ready for their husbands and children before they awoke. Regular dust storms left their home coated in filth and infested with bugs and scorpions, and it was up to the girls and women to clean up.
Under Taliban rule, Passarlay’s mother and aunts almost never left the house, because women were often raped for going outside.
The Taliban regime, he writes, was good. “Their position was simple: strong social controls and Sharia law was the true path to both peace and God. To me and the male members of my family, this made perfect sense.”
He writes of the glee he took in being able to openly criticize his aunts and his mother, simply because he was a boy.
“I was an extremely pious child,” he writes. “I liked to enforce the rules of Islam. ‘The wrath of Allah will be upon you,’ I used to say to my aunties. ‘Go and cover your head.’ ”
One of Passarlay’s aunts couldn’t get pregnant, and he threatened her: “If you don’t get a baby soon, I will get my uncle a new wife.” The woman broke down and wept.
Passarlay’s father was a doctor, his most advanced piece of equipment a microscope. Girls couldn’t go to school; for the boys, he writes, the most fun they had was in winter, when they’d all have to fix the roof of their classroom, which had been blown apart in the Russian invasion. For children to play, he writes, was considered lazy and rude — not that the outdoors were conducive. Waste clogged the rivers; sewers were open and oozing.
Instead, for fun, Passarlay’s uncles and grandfather would take him to town squares, where he watched a half-naked man nearly whipped to death by the Vice and Virtue Committee. His crime? Not praying that day.
Another afternoon, he sat on an adult’s shoulders for a better sight line to a stoning: buried up to her waist was a young woman — “an adulteress, a whore.” The men threw stones at her head and she thrashed back and forth until she was dead in under two minutes.
“With hindsight, I can see what barbarity this was,” Passarlay writes. “But it has to be put into context . . . My grandfather called life under the Taliban ‘The best of times we are living in.’ ”
‘You need to leave’
Then came Sept. 11, 2001. The United States wanted Afghanistan to turn over Osama bin Laden, who was then hiding in Tora Bora. Afghanistan refused, and Passarlay writes the nation as a whole felt “a swell of patriotism. No one really believed America’s threats.”
In December 2001, the US, backed by 48 allies, began bombing the region. Passarlay’s father and uncles were suspected to be members of the Taliban and active in the resistance. Passarlay admits that at least one uncle was, and that his family were sympathizers.
In 2005 — the year 1385 by the Afghan calendar — Passarlay’s father was killed. To this day, Passarlay doesn’t know how. Shortly after that, he writes, the Taliban pressured him and his brother to become suicide bombers, while US forces wanted them to become informants.
The Taliban began leaving notes under their door, always the same message: “Be martyred, or die.” They tried to kidnap the boys one day after school. That’s when his mother took Passarlay and his brother, Hazrat, aside.
I don’t know what was worse — the horror of watching someone vomit in such close confines, or the embarrassment of a man who soils himself in front of his travel companions.”
“You need to leave,” she told them. “You have to go somewhere very far from here, where no one knows you.”
The boys didn’t want to go, but their mother paid a smuggler to get the boys to Europe, somehow. Passarlay hated everything about the idea, including having to wear the “devil jeans” of the West — “the cultural uniform of my enemy.”
Soon, that concern seemed a luxury. Within days, Passarlay and his brother were deliberately separated by the traffickers, put on different planes at Peshawar’s airport. Passarlay landed in Iran, “a terrified, lonely, and sobbing mess.”
He had $200 in US bills in his pocket, a fake passport and no friend or family member to guide him. He was furious to be in a Shia country: they “weren’t true Muslims . . . But I had to admit, [it] was very beautiful.”
He had never been in an elevator before. He had never seen so many women with bare faces. He cried, openly, for his mother.
“I had no idea how to survive in a foreign country,” he writes. “I was just a little boy. How could this be happening to me?”
Very quickly, things got worse. Passarlay’s traffickers took his passport. He and three other refugees were transported to a farmhouse run by a man named Black Wolf. They hid there for 10 days, then were rousted by a new team of smugglers and forced to walk an entire night in the vague direction of Turkey. Their next hideout was a chicken coop.
“Welcome to hell,” said the gatekeeper.
Passarlay and two others were stashed inside a chicken coop with 11 other men. They were given a few handfuls of rice per day and relied on a dripping pipe for water.
“A lot of time was spent trying to control our bodily functions,” he writes. “Just once every 24 hours we were taken in groups of three to use a stinking toilet. There was never toilet paper, and the tap for washing yourself often didn’t work, forcing desperate men to wipe themselves clean on the streaked walls. It wasn’t long before people started to get sick. I don’t know what was worse — the horror of watching someone vomit in such close confines, or the embarrassment of a man who soils himself in front of his travel companions.”
Next, Passarlay and his three companions were gathered up and driven to a hostel, where several young women fed the starving boys, who shoveled food into their mouths and ran commentary:
“ ‘I doubt these women are virgins,’ snorted Abdul.”
“ ‘These women are filthy whores,’ said a man.”
“ ‘They should cover their hair,’ I said. ‘Are they not ashamed to disgrace their families by dressing in such a way?’ ”
Passarlay writes that he later realized these women were in equally dire straits and were probably sex slaves. His own piety and bigotry, he says, was still a struggle, despite all the suffering he’d endured in only a month.
On and on it went, and Passarlay was beginning to wise up: These human traffickers had no interest in getting anyone to their destination. The only way they could keep making money was to keep their refugees confused, lost, poor and on the move.
Passarlay and the others were then hustled into a cattle truck with 55 other refugees, a trip that nearly killed him. When they reached their destination, the border crossing between Turkey and Greece, other migrants warned them: There were no roads, no pathways, no food — only dead bodies for miles.
“I was almost beginning to want to be caught,” Passarlay writes. “Being deported surely had to be better than being killed.”
Learning to change
By June 2007, Passarlay had been on the run for six months, bouncing among Turkey, Iran and Bulgaria. The attempted sea crossing, the one that nearly killed him, brought him his wish:
Passarlay and the others were rescued by Greece’s coast guard. They were rounded up and put in a holding cell, but Passarlay was struck by the kindness of the Greek guards, who let the Muslim prisoners observe Ramadan. “I was greatly touched by this,” he writes. “Greece isn’t a Muslim country.”
Passarlay was still a boy, but now one with chronic stomach pain due to malnutrition. His body was riddled with pimples, the result of wearing flea-infested clothes. In Greece, he could avail himself of aid from the UN, but for how long? What if, he thought, Greece sent him back?
So Passarlay snuck out, traveling through Italy to France to Germany, paying dubious smugglers with the little money he still had. He had to stay with whomever offered, and when that person was an older single man, he worried about rape.
“My life was a living nightmare,” he writes. “We kept trying trucks. The routine was the same. Break in, get caught, walk miles home.” He now welcomed death, yet got in one last transport to Britain — he’d gotten a line on his brother.
Britain, Passarlay writes, saved him.
There, he was arrested yet again. He was 13 years old. A social worker was called, and she took him to a hotel. “A shower, clean clothes, freedom and a place to stay,” he writes. “That was all I had, and I felt like a king.”
The social worker helped Passarlay apply for asylum and placed him in a hostel with other refugees — Afghans, Africans, Arabs. There, they took classes on British culture, history and governance. They were taught how to budget money, how to shop, cook and clean, how to get around on public transportation. They were taken to the National Portrait Gallery, where Passarlay saw art for the first time — images of any kind were banned by the Taliban.
Miraculously, Passarlay was reunited with his brother Hazrat — a fellow refugee at the hostel stumbled into Hazrat during a day trip to London. Yet Passarlay still struggled with his anger at the West, with the tenets of a religion he wasn’t sure he subscribed to fully anymore, with feelings of abandonment and post-traumatic stress.
He says that if it wasn’t for the dedication of his social workers — both female — and the public programs in place to help assimilate Muslim refugees, including a loving foster family, his story could have been quite different.
“Some of my friends got involved in extremist radical Islamist groups,” Passarlay writes. “These groups prey on the vulnerable and lonely . . . they are masters at seizing on and manipulating a person’s traumas or unresolved issues.”
But his foster family and British schoolteachers — some Muslim themselves — encouraged Passarlay to get involved in advocacy for child migrants, to go to university, and to join the British Youth Council, which advises the government on public policy for young people.
”When immigrants and refugees don’t feel welcomed or part of society,” he writes, “that’s when they can turn against it.”
In 2012, Passarlay was selected to carry the Olympic torch in Britain, his now beloved adopted country. He is a student at the University of Manchester, works for various aid groups and dreams of going home one day and running for president of Afghanistan. He still has nightmares and says he will never be free of the physical, emotional and mental suffering he endured.
And so his greatest goal, he writes, is “that a child in the future will read this book and ask, ‘What was a refugee?’ ”