By Simon Kingsley-Pallant, Head of Drama
A young man is speaking to the pupils of Bedales Prep School, Dunhurst. He is 22 years old and his name is Gulwali. He is telling the story of how he came to England from Afghanistan and what happened on that year long journey and the life he has made for himself since.
The date he addresses the school is important too. It’s 20 January 2017, the same day that the most powerful nation on earth inaugurates her 45 President. As a teacher I am struck by Gulwali’s immense sense of purpose as an advocate for the defenceless, for those displaced by war, and by his humility and humanity. He tells of his early boyhood as a hill shepherd, his extended family and his first time at school. We hear how the fighting began in 2001 and of how Gulwali’s relatives were killed; of how his adored mother sent Gulwali and his brother to Europe, to England, in search of a better, safer life.
The audience listen with rapt attention as Gulwali describes his odyssey through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and onward to Italy and the Jungle in Calais. He tells of the danger, the fear, the setbacks, the heartbreak, but also of his faith and his hope and the determination he has to find his brother. At one point he almost drowns in the Mediterranean, and he tells us five thousand people died that way in 2016. Four thousand drowned in 2015. There is a pause, the scale of this human catastrophe is hard to comprehend.
Gulwali’s story is one of resilience and hope, of luck and success. He tells it eloquently in his soft spoken and accented English, the fifth of the five languages he speaks. He has co-written a book about his experiences, The Lightless Sky, where the details are more harrowing, more troubling than he has let on for this younger audience. Rounding off his talk, in which he has stressed the importance of education and implored the pupils to make the most of what they have, he asks them to consider what legacy they would like to leave when they are adult citizens of the world.
As that question is briefly, yet deeply pondered in the silence of our school meeting place, I realise that not once has Gulwali resorted to bitterness, blame or hatred. In his matter-of-fact personal narrative he has only been decent and humane. He has known violence, war, and the extremes of human behaviour, but there is no rancour or revenge in his speech. How different, how utterly different from the words heard at the same time in the capital of the most powerful nation on earth.