The Lightless Sky by Gulwali Passarlay.
I don’t do ‘book reviews’ in any way, but this book was just too important to not write about.
A few years ago, when I was having a chat with some of our students in Belfast, the conversation meandered to the topic of weather, what else? One of our European students complained that one of their windows leaked in the rain, which ruined one of their laptops – a perfectly valid complaint anywhere – until a comment from one of our Middle Eastern students brought us back to reality from our ‘first world problems’.
“Did anyone die?”
“Then it’s not a problem. Be thankful it’s just a leak and not a real problem.”
In any other school, this may have raised tensions between two speakers, but in a free language class on a Thursday night in Belfast where most of the students are refugees while some are new arrivals to the country looking for work, it made us all take a minute and consider the journey our students took to get here. For some it was as simple as a low cost airline ticket. For others, it was life and death.
That’s where this book review comes in. I’ve been working with refugees and asylum seekers since 2015 in the Belfast Islamic Centre and Belfast Unemployed Resource Centre, and even though I knew some of their stories, I’ve never had a step-by-step story of how they went – obviously there is no way in hell we would ever ask them that (although if they want to have someone to simply listen to them, we are happy to help). Until I came across this book recently where a boy of 12 – TWELVE- has to traverse the distance between England and Afghanistan – around 6,000km to get to safety. I have students at the age of 12 can’t even read an analogue clock correctly, but get the whole way across one and a half continents?
As the book starts off giving a back story into author Gulwali Passarlay’s early childhood, family structure and culture, the book is co-authored by award winning journalist Nadene Ghouri and is written in a detailed and clear way where you imagine yourself within every chapter – for better or worse. I find the opening of the book to be of extreme importance, as people in Europe may know of the wars in Afghanistan, the US/UK invasion after 9/11 and what has happened since but I was lacking in detailed knowledge of the culture and societal structure that existed before hand. It is important to set the scene in any book and I find the authors do a good job of making it clear what people thought of the events known around the world, by the people who actually had to face them.
The book takes us on a terrifying journey starting off with a mother, who having lost family members, wants only safety and a life for her children, so spends $8,000 to get her two young sons ‘passage’ to Europe and hopefully England via the only way there really exists – people traffickers, who have contacts across Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France and England. From that moment in the book when her two young children are handed over to the traffickers, they become nothing more than commodities to be traded around through the Middle East and Europe depending on if money is being passed around to the right people and provided no one is either in prison or dead.
Another terrifying aspect of the book is that Passarlay, even though is only 12 when the journey begins, he has to learn how to survive in these horrid situations, using literally anything he can to his advantage – whether it is to play cute to elderly women for food, or to have a thick skin and leave friends behind, as he may not get another chance to pass through a border or cross a sea.
From the first page you come across characters both friend and foe who help personalise the story more, Passarlay does make friends along the way with a group of people, and then there is the traffickers themselves, who are clearly people to be feared and care not for the lives of those they are paid to ‘move around’. The book is certainly not bed time reading either, the opening chapter describing the situation on an over capacity boat that starts to sink is not for the faint hearted. But then again, it shouldn’t be – this isn’t a fairy tale as we drift off to sleep, this is a book documenting the horrors of a world outside of Europe (and within, look at Calais) that is being faced by literally millions of people each year – and many are dying all over the world because the chance of a better life somewhere is better than certain death back home.
It’s a powerful story that is both eye opening and horrifying. I had no idea that traffickers had so much organisation and plans to get around borders, police and military. On the flip side, there is also the deliberate ignorance (or incompetence?) of state authorities in places to either ignore the refugees crossing their borders, or to get rid of them as fast as possible, making it someone else’s problem instead.
The book does have a happy ending, if you can call it that, with respect to the events within its pages. Luckily Gulwali does make it to England (or how else would be have written the book), has got married, has a degree, he carried the Olympic Torch in 2012 and works to help other refugees who are suffering similarly to him and so many millions of others. This is one story that ends well, but sadly the UN reckons there are at least 20,000 dead at the bottom of the Mediterranean alone within the last five years and these are only the ones they know of – how many others?
A major point to take away from this book too is the mental toll these events have on a person. The physical toll is obvious and clear – it can result in injury, illness and death. However, I’m glad that Passarlay opened up about his mental health in the book, and the fact that he considered and even attempted to end it all on several occasions. Leaving a war torn home to cross 6000km, to witness the lowest acts of humanity, death and to live in constant fear, always on edge, not knowing where your next meal will come never mind what country you are in would destroy anyone, let alone someone who was 12 years old at the time of doing it.
In the summer of 2015 while we were getting our BELFAST Programme off the ground working with other refugee groups in Ireland, some of us teachers were sitting in the office working on plans going forward and how to get more publicity about the plight of refugees. We couldn’t understand why the world wasn’t taking more notice of this massive problem and why the West wasn’t really interested in helping. Funding for our project? Wise up. Not a week had past when the infamous images appeared on every news station and paper around the world of the death of three year old Alan Shanu who’s family had fled war torn Syria in search for safety, only for their boat to go down and the poor child to drown and his body wash up on a Turkish beach. Only then did the media take notice. But that quickly died down again. The stories of refugees fleeing war torn areas appears from time to time in the news, but that doesn’t sell quite like Brexit, the football or pandemic rules. But while we get on with our lives, the plight of those fleeing war torn areas goes on, and if people are willing to risk all their money and lives just to get away from something, surely they need all the help we can give?
This book helps put things into perspective and puts a human face on what men, women and children have to go through to get away from certain death for absolutely no fault of their own.
To put things into perspective, I have one story worth telling that is sadly similar to what Passarlay went through on those horrific boat journeys he faced reaching Europe. One of our students from 2015 (or summer 2016, one of the two) told me a story that will haunt me for as long as I may live.
Picture the scene. It was a Thursday night class, we had classes from 5-7pm for absolute beginners, and I was teaching family vocabulary that night with two or three other teachers. This can be a touchy subject at the best of times with our refugees as some have lost relatives, but it’s still important vocabulary, so we do try to get through it. That night, one of our newer students was finding it particularly difficult emotionally but she insisted she would get through the class and speak to us afterwards. After classes we usually had a meeting lasting 30 minutes to discuss the events of the classes, how they went, plans going forward and anything else that came up.
Our student first apologised for getting emotional – straight away we were apologising to her as it’s a core vocabulary point, but we’re aware it can be tough on some, and we hoped we hadn’t offender her. Then she told us her story. I still remember the silence afterwards.
Like many others, she had fled her home country due to war. She had done what she could to get her and her family, including her two young sons from the Middle East to Ireland, from walking great distances to being moved around with other groups of refugees willing to pay ‘people’ to get them from A to B via whatever means there was. Then they got on a boat in the Mediterranean. Overcrowded and not sea worthy, it went down taking everyone with it. Wherever they were, boats came to their rescue and saved who they could. She was one of the lucky ones. As there was several boats picking people up and going different directions she was separated from her family. They had decided that if they got split up (when on land) they were to link up together again by the time they reached Ireland. She never heard from a single family member since the day the boat went down. She told us she had no idea if her extended family, and in particular her young sons were alive in another country, had made it back to camps, had be deported home, or where dead in the water. She was now alone in this world and had no idea if her family were even alive or dead. You often hear the phrase the ‘1000 yard stare’. That night, I saw the 1000 yard stare and I will never forget it. Silence was ear bursting in the room when she finished talking. Tears were already on some teachers’ faces as she told the story. I think I just about held it together until I left the room, I’m not sure. I still think of her and her family a couple of times a week. And the sickening helplessness it gave us all in that instant.
As may be obvious 1900 words into a ‘short book review’ on a teacher’s website, perhaps it’s clear that this book was more than a book to me. It terrifies me that as I type this, there are thousands if not millions of people doing what Passarlay did in this book right now, trying to flee the horrors of war and just want a safe life for them and their families. Some will be in the Jungle in and around Calais, some will be sleeping rough in cities all across the world, some in camps, some walking through border checkpoints, some up mountains in the dark avoiding said checkpoints. That’s no life for anyone, and certainly not something a child should face, alone.
So here is a few ideas for people who want to help out.
First buy the book and read it.
Donate to the Care4Calais organisation who work with those on the ground in Calais.
If you are in Ireland, why not join us in BURC and help out in some way you can – we would love help from all walks of life, not just teachers.
Check out what we’ve done with The BELFAST Programme and see what you think.
Donate to The Horn of Africa People’s Aid NI (HAPANI) who helped started our projects in Ireland or the Belfast Islamic Centre, who do absolutely amazing work all over Ireland helping those who come here and try to make a new life for themselves and their family and also offered us some of their rooms to teach in.
There is the Society of St. Vincent de Paul Ireland who could also do with some donations or volunteers – in Lurgan, when our first Syrian refugees were arriving under David Cameron’s scheme, the SVP of Lurgan were just wonderful in setting up the most amazing learning centre for our refugees and continue to do just amazing work.
See what community centres are around you and help in some shape or form.
I honestly think in 50 years’ time, history will look back on the refugee crisis and how the West handled it, and be appalled at the handling of it and the countless deaths it caused. Millions of displaced people the world over, but the governments of the richest counties in the world want nothing to do with it.
…Even more so since they were the ones that caused it all in the first place.