In 2006, an Afghani widow decided to send her two oldest sons to the West, paying $8,000 to get them to Italy. Since the Taliban was trying to recruit them as freedom fighters and the U.S. army was trying to convince them to become spies, she felt they would be safe only if out of the country. This book tells the story of 12-year-old Gulwali Passarlay’s 12-month journey to England.
The book sheds light on the plight of refugees, especially unaccompanied minors. Gulwali’s trek was certainly harrowing; it was physically and emotionally traumatic. He was at the mercy of smugglers who see refugees only as their income generators. He mentions that one very frustrating aspect of his travels was not knowing where he was or what the next stage of the trip would entail: “One thing was clear, this was a highly organized infrastructure. . . . I felt constantly vulnerable but where I felt most unsafe was in the hands of the different drivers, most of whom I guessed had been recruited locally and didn’t know who they were working for, or at the handover points when we had no idea who we would be passed on to next” (185).
What is also emphasized is how powerless refugees are: “One of the strangest things about this journey was how whenever a smuggler or driver gave us an instruction, we simply followed it. . . . Without questioning or really even thinking, we put our lives into the hands of strangers, time and again. We had no choice. When they said come, we little lost sheep had to follow” (167). Gulwali made friends who helped him, but he realized that “On this journey everyone was out for themselves; in part that was because they were so helpless and powerless” (187). One passage that really struck me mentions the true cost of the journey: “the truth was that were all so desperate that we quickly came to resent anybody who had something we did not – the extra mouthful of water, a tiny bit more floor space, a filthy pillow, or a few grains of rice. Our humanity was slipping away – being stolen away. Perhaps that was the real price of this journey” (90). The stay in the Jungle in Calais was one of the most traumatic for Gulwali: “In their own countries, many of these people had power, even the respect of their communities. Here in the Jungle we were barely human. We were the beasts that gave this place its name” (294).
Gulwali was occasionally helped by people he encountered. After being treated nicely by a poor Kurdish family, Gulwali realized that some people harboured refugees because they needed money: “They certainly weren’t getting rich from it. They were poor people who needed work and money. Were they really so different from us? . . . Yes, there were some bad people – criminals and kidnappers, but most people were decent” (175). Later, he concluded, “I was beginning to realize that there were kind people around who were truly moved by the plight of refugees” (266). Unfortunately, those good people were certainly outnumbered.
The treatment of the French police seems especially callous: “Whenever we got caught, the police would just let us loose again – providing we were a long way from the Jungle. If not, they took a vicious pleasure in driving us to a remote location and dumping us at the side of the road. . . . During the day, the police loved to raid the Jungle, probably because they knew we were likely to be resting. It was common to have my charity-donated blanket pulled from me, a screaming police officer shouting in French in my face. They would move us on, beating any guys who resisted. We would then be forced to stand shivering in the cold while they questioned us about things we knew they didn’t want to hear answers to” (292 – 293).
What is also noteworthy is that once a refugee is physically safe, the suffering is not over. The trauma of their experiences leaves emotional scars. Gulwali’s depression and suicide attempts attest to the long-term effects refugees suffer. Gulwali discusses being “consumed with guilt, confusion, and frustration at the alien nation I was struggling so hard to live in” and feeling “dislocated and full of loss” (343). He warns that extremist radical groups “prey on the vulnerable and lonely. They offer friendship and brotherhood and are masters at seizing on and manipulating a person’s traumas or unresolved issues” (343 – 344). He advocates for “solid connections” to a community and opportunities “to be heard” to help refugees from “being drawn into destructive groups that only promote hatred” (344).
The book is written in simple prose but sometimes Gulwali’s voice sounds too mature and worldly. He makes references to things a 12-year-old boy who grew up as he did would not know. Sometimes his behaviour does not seem realistic: “But, because I was calm following our prayers, a sense of purpose came over me. Just as in the prison yard in Maku, when I had felt it my duty to negotiate our way out and take people without money with me, I believed the three of us – Mehran, Jawad, and I – had come here for a reason: to rescue these men and take them with us. . . . I felt that by acting as a group we could make it through somehow. If we showed the old man a united front instead of everyone shouting, crying, and pleading, we might get out of there” (187).
I really enjoyed the first section of the novel where Gulwali describes his life in Afghanistan. Reading about Pashtun culture was interesting. Learning about Pashtunwali, the strict rules of social etiquette, such as how to treat a guest, to which every Pashtun abides, put some historic events in perspective: “The United States had threatened to attack if [the Taliban] didn’t hand [bin Laden] over, but the Taliban refused because, under the rules of Pashtunwali, he was our guest, and a guest is under the protection of the host” (30).
Some parts of the book I found rather tedious. It was also difficult to keep track of Gulwali’s various friends because they are not really developed except as they help him, and one stop along his journey was often so much like the next. Of course I feel guilty describing the book as tedious because my feelings are nothing when compared to the tedium Gulwali sometimes endured as he waited for the next leg of his journey.
The book is one everyone should read. It definitely made me realize that I won a lottery when I was born in Canada. Readers will have a better understanding of why refugees choose to leave their home countries (often having few options) and what they endure. If a reader does not come away with more sympathy for them (and the families they might leave behind), I despair.