From Afghanistan to Manchester University: Teenager who made treacherous odyssey across 10 countries in search of 'a peaceful life' to read politics and philosophy

After completing his studies, Gulwali Passarlay plans to return to his homeland and run for the presidency

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The Independent Online

When his fellow undergraduates start swapping notes about which festivals they took in during their gap year, Gulwali Passarlay will have a rather different story to tell. At the age of 12, the young Afghan fled his home embarking alone on a treacherous odyssey across 10 countries.

Tramping hungry through freezing mountains, braving routine arrest, sickness, loneliness and the ever present danger of the open road, it was a year-long journey which has now brought him to the gates of one of the UK's leading learning establishments.

Next week the teenager, having learnt English and passed GCSEs and A-levels with flying colours, will begin his studies for a BA in politics and philosophy at Manchester University with the intention that one day he will return to Afghanistan and run for the presidency there.

“It was just about survival - survival of the fittest. All you care about is getting food or getting some shelter,” he said of his flight from war.

“Many times I was hungry for days on end. You have to walk night and day and then you would come across the bodies of people that had died because they did not have enough water,” the 18-year-old now recalls.

It was his mother's idea to send him their home in eastern Afghanistan near Tora Bora, the former stronghold of Osama Bin Laden. His uncle was senior commander in the Taliban. His father, a local doctor was later killed in the conflict with US troops and the Nato-backed Afghan army along with five other members of the family.

Gulwali's mother feared her sons would become targets for reprisals and did not want them to fight with either side in the conflict, subsequently agreeing to pay people smugglers to get them out.

The brothers were separated in Pakistan and Gulwali, with little more than $100 in his pocket he continued on foot, lorry and even horse back through the desolate terrains of Iran and high mountain passes of eastern Turkey.

To get into Greece he was forced to cram into a dangerously overloaded boat along with 100 other asylum seekers where, battered by high seas, they spent 50 hours afloat without food, water or anywhere to go to the toilet.

In Bulgaria he was sent back to Turkey and forced to make the journey into Europe again. Tramping through Italy, France, Belgium and Germany, hitching rides where he could, avoiding the authorities and relying on the generosity of strangers, he made a final hike from Brussels to Calais in one marathon stint.

At the port he camped for three months eventually stowing away in a banana lorry.

“I was very lucky. It was raining and muddy and I was crying so much. Everyone was afraid that because it was a refrigerated lorry he would put on the freezer and we would die. At one point the police opened the door but could not see us,” he said.

He was arrested again arriving in Britain where - looked after by foster parents - he embarked on a long legal battle to convince the Home Office that he was indeed just 13 and an Afghan national.

“There was quite a lot of racism. People would call me an asylum seeker and say go back to Afghanistan but there were more kind people than bad people,” said Gulwali, who now lives in Bolton, Greater Manchester.

He eventually made contact with his brother Hazrat and uncle and, after four years with no contact, his mother. “Even now sometimes I sit down and cry because I miss my family but that is not a sign of weakness it is a part of being human,” he said.

“I went through the journey so I could have a peaceful life and I see my happiness in the happiness of others. This country has given me so much. Now anything is possible.”