Newcastle University host talk from Gulwali Passarlay

The author gave a talk charting his journey from Afghanistan to the UK as a child refugee.

Renzo Szkwarok
9th December 2021
Image Credit: Renzo Szkwarok
On Tuesday 7 December the writer, public speaker, and activist for human rights gave a talk put on by the Institute for Social Sciences.

On Tuesday 7 December the writer, public speaker, and activist for human rights – Gulwali Passarlay – gave a talk at the university, the event was put on by Newcastle University’s Institute for Social Sciences. Organised by lecturer of Geography, Dr Jen Bagelman, this talk was an opportunity to hear a personal account of a migration journey undertaken by a 12-year-old that took over 12 months from Afghanistan to the UK.

Passarlay’s charismatic talk focused mainly on his journey out of Afghanistan that he charts in great detail in his book – from a comfortable and happy life in Afghanistan with his family, to the moment that the US and UK backed invasion destabilised his country, resulting in the death of his father. His mother, out of fear and hope for a better life, sent him and his brother to leave the country with smugglers and head for Europe.

Managing to make parts somehow funny and others absolutely harrowing, one of the main themes that Passarlay kept returned to was how the kindness of others got him out of multiple situations along his journey. However, it was clear that there needs to be a more cohesive and centralised effort to assist those fleeing war-torn regions.

Detouring off topic briefly, he also took time to condemn the Nationality and Borders Bill going through parliament at the moment. Saying that it represents a scapegoating of migrants for the country’s societal issues. Going on to say that the Home Office likely will never face any consequences for the trauma and abuse that those at the blunt end of this bill will face.

Also giving brief talks at the event were Rosie Tapsfield from the Newcastle’s ‘City of Sanctuary’ organisation, and Lucy Backhurst – the academic registrar at the university. Tapsfield was speaking on the work that the council has been doing under the 'City of Sanctuary' movement in order to make Newcastle a "more welcoming and friendly place for migrants and asylum seekers".

This includes multiple political and social strands coming together to support over 1,100 asylum seekers, 41 of which are unaccompanied children. Detailing how with the current level of support from the government, there is little the council can do – the willingness is apparently there in the council, but with no political impetus from Westminster.

The university’s status as a ‘University of Sanctuary’ was mentioned many times at the event. Under this umbrella the university gives three full scholarships for any undergraduate or postgraduate course every year to anyone who qualifies as an asylum seeker, a child of an asylum seeker/unaccompanied child asylum seeker, or someone with refugee status. This scheme, funded by alumni, is designed to open up higher education opportunities to this group of people who are typically excluded.

Lucy Backhusrt, speaking as our academic registrar and a member of the Sanctuary Committee, praised the work done at the university and its commitment to justice and the need for more kindness.

Speaking to Lucy Backhurst after the event, I asked whether there was desire at the university to offer more than just 3 scholarships, she said “this is something that we need to look at. As a new member of the Sanctuary Committee, it is a great opportunity to use this momentum to look to alumni and other sources of funding”. Backhurst went on to say: “we are in year three of the scheme and we are aware we get more applications than we have money available, but it is something that we will look at – I can commit to that!”.

Questions came from the audience to round off the event, with questions being asked to all three speakers. The final one coming from an ex-councilor in the audience who thanked Passarlay for writing his book, becoming quite emotional and saying it was a great source of inspiration.

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