From Refugee to Advocate: An Afghan Survivor’s Journey to Making a Difference in the UK

Published by: Sinéad Mangan-Mc Hale

Published on: 16 Jun, 2024

By Sinéad Mangan-Mc Hale

Once a child fleeing the chaos of war, Gulwali Passarlay has transformed his harrowing journey into a powerful mission of advocacy and compassion. Now a prominent activist, he dedicates his life to championing the rights and dignity of refugees, inspiring hope and change with an unwavering commitment to a more compassionate society.

If you are lucky enough to meet Gulwali Passarlay, author of The Lightless Sky, you will meet a man who is passionate about the rights of individuals, whether they are asylum seekers, refugees, migrants, or citizens. His compassion for people, regardless of their status, gender, sexual orientation, nationality or religion is a testament to his unwavering belief in universal human rights and dignity, demonstrating his commitment to inclusivity and justice for all. His role as an activist for refugee rights, and a spokesperson for refugees with no voice, is all-encompassing. He is fostering a movement towards compassion, understanding, and positive change.

The premise of TogetherintheUK (TGIUK) is to give refugees and migrants a platform to share their stories so they will connect with other people who have experienced similar situations. And equally so that society will begin to understand the hardships endured. However, for Gulwali, writing about his trauma was counterintuitive, as he explained:

In my culture, you keep things to yourself, but I wanted not just to tell my story but also the story of millions of others who are forced to make similar journeys. I wanted to give people a different perspective on the negative narrative delivered by many politicians and media at the peak of the refugee crisis when refugees were demonised. Writing my story was not a positive experience; I just wanted to forget what happened and move on. However, I felt I had a sense of moral obligation to use my story so people could understand the human perspective, to show that refugees are not statistics but individuals, with the same hopes and dream as everyone else. The irony is that when my friends read the book, they asked what the big deal was, as we had all gone through the same process. But that was the very point I wanted to make. For us, for refugees, the suffering, the pain, the imprisonment, the detention, the dehumanisation, and the criminalisation were part of our and thousands of others’ experiences. It is sad but true to say that enduring those traumas was safer than being in a war zone in Afghanistan or any other country. That is the reason so many of us leave our home countries.

In the TGIUK, Hear Our Stories, an anthology on migrant writing, many of our authors discussed how “labelling” and racist language impacted their lives. Even terms that have become mainstream, such as second-generation migrants, can cause distress, as author Goody explained in a recent blog Cultural Tapestry: Navigating Dual Identities on the TGIUK website. I asked Gulwali about the negative narratives around refugees and migrants. 

Often, the language used around migrants and refugees is deliberately inflammatory. There is a tendency to label people to slot them into some category to make it easier to identify them in a way that differs them from others. The truth is that labels convey something absolute, something that’s difficult to navigate away from once it’s decided. Despite being a published author, a prominent activist, a university graduate and having lived in the UK for over fifteen years, I am still labelled a “refugee”. Language helps shape people’s opinions, and words such as “illegal”, “invaders”, and “undesirables”, are used to generate fear in people’s minds while dehumanising people who have been forced to flee their own homes. Sadly, the racist language used by right-wing organisations has become mainstream, used to arouse fear and shape negative views about migrants and refugees.

Why do you think there so much hostile rhetoric around refugees and migrants? 

Firstly, I believe that refugees and migrants have been used as political pawns to deflect from government failures; the crisis in the health service, the housing crisis, and the crisis in other public services did not start when refugees and migrants came to the UK. In certain sectors, such as the health service, migrants formed the backbone of those services such as the NHS. The government and, indeed, most political parties use refugees and migrants as scapegoats to cover up their failures in managing the country. This was evidenced in some of the campaigns during the Brexit referendum campaign, supported by certain media carrying incendiary stories about refugees with misleading headlines on asylum seekers receiving benefits and homes before citizens to deflect from the economic situation and drive the votes in a specific direction. 

At the same time, I can understand some attitudes from everyday people struggling to get by, find housing, or survive economically. When they are told false truths about asylum seeker and refugees being housed in luxury hotels, getting extra social benefits or jumping queues for social housing and that the government is spending millions of pounds on refugees (which in reality of course is not true), money that could be spent on housing, education, better public services, then naturally, I am going to blame my problems on refugees. It is understandable to blame others for your struggles, particularly if you are being fed false information. The truth is that most people are inherently nice and kind. If we look at the positive response the people of the UK showed to refugees coming from Ukraine, it shows are a compassionate nation. Every day, I travel to different parts of the UK to give talks on human rights, and I constantly meet people who are welcoming and want to understand the plight of refugees. A lot of people who fear refugees, people like me, have not met one. There is no human connection as we are only considered a statistic. However, we must listen to these people, empathise with their fears and try to deflate those fears. If, as refugees, we turn to labelling people as racists or immoral, then we are just as bad. We need to establish human connections and understanding, as I believe they will realise that refugees are simply people with similar hopes and dreams. No -one chooses to be a refugee.

What can we do to improve the situation for refugees?

From an individual perspective, we need to show compassion and understand what forces people, especially children, to flee their own country, leave family and friends behind, and undertake a journey that can be dangerous and traumatic to reach safety.

From a legal perspective, I understand there cannot be an open-door policy, but there should be a compassionate policy and means of processing people quickly and with dignity. The new Illegal Migration Bill and the deportation of refugees to Rwanda is not the right way to treat people. 

Gulwali Passarlay’s journey from a child fleeing for his life to a dedicated advocate for refugee rights is a story of hope, resilience, and unwavering commitment to making a difference. Through his advocacy work, Gulwali helps countless refugees, and as an activist, he fights for their rights, inspiring others to call for a more just and compassionate world. His life serves as a powerful reminder that even in the face of immense adversity, one can rise to become a beacon of hope and change.

Read Alison Hramiak’s review of Gulwali’s book, The Lightless Sky

To purchase a copy of Gulwali’s book, go to Amazon

To purchase a copy of Hear Our Stories, An Anthology of Migrant Writings, compiled by TogetherintheUK, go to TGIUK 

To read more about the lives and impacts of migrants on UK society, go to TogetherintheUK.   

Please read our related articles