This pilot project brings hope to Afghan refugees on their journey to America
It passed through Antelope Canyon in northern Arizona, surrounded by swirling sandstone formations formed by flash floods.
He stood on the rugged Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, which rise some 700 feet above the Atlantic Ocean – a stunning emerald backdrop that has been featured in music videos, folk song and movies like “The Princess Bride”.
He saw the sunlight dancing over the cobalt-blue domes of whitewashed houses carved into the top of a hill above the Aegean Sea on the Greek island of Santorini.
But the image that moved him to tears recently is not something he has seen in nature. It’s something he stumbled upon while volunteering last summer on a nine-hour flight to the United States on a plane full of Afghan evacuees.
Khogyani was looking at the anxious and drawn faces of the Afghan children sitting with their parents when he realized he was watching a younger version of himself.
âI was nine years old when I experienced similar circumstances,â says Khogyani, 53. “It all came back running. It was harder than I thought.”
He fled Afghanistan with his family when he was little
For the lucky ones among us, the holiday season is a time to spend time with friends and family. This year, Khogyani’s thoughts turn to some Afghan families he has recently met for the first time – and one he has left behind.
Khogyani came into contact with these families through his day job. He has been a pilot for United Airlines for 27 years. When the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August, the Pentagon called on the civilian reserve air fleet to help provide commercial jets for the emergency evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies.
Khogyani wrote to the CEO of United Airlines and volunteered to help. For him, it was personal.
He grew up in Afghanistan but fled the country with his family in 1977 when he was nine years old.
His grandfather was a judge and a senator, while his father ruled three provinces. A change in the country’s political climate has led to an escalation in death threats against his family.
Khogyani still remembers the tense car ride to Kabul airport.
He was carrying a small bag. They did not bring any family souvenirs, photos or additional clothing. He was abruptly torn from a life with an uncertain future.
âThe atmosphere was very heavy,â says Khogyani. “Nobody said much. My mother didn’t tell me we were going to leave the country.”
He surprised the Afghan evacuees by greeting them in their language
These memories were on Khogyani’s mind when he was allowed to join the airlift in August.
He flew to an air base in Germany to meet the evacuees, who had been airlifted there from Kabul. Over the next nine days, he accompanied 1,000 Afghan passengers on three flights between Europe and the United States, serving as an interpreter for the refugees – and a symbol of a brighter future.
At first he surprised the evacuees. He stood at the boarding gate and greeted them in Pashto, their own language.
“Welcome,” he told them. “I hope you come happily.”
Many Afghans looked at him in surprise, then confusion. Then relief. They started bombarding him with questions:
Where am I going next? Who can I contact for help? How can I find a job?
He tried to help, but he knew there were questions he couldn’t answer. A big one dealt with the loneliness of leaving family members behind.
“I never saw my grandparents again,” he says. “I have never seen most of my extended family and I know they face the same future.”
United Airlines employees donated diapers, baby wipes, pacifiers and blankets to Afghan families. The hanging bins were filled with these gifts, as well as chocolate and toys. Someone pasted children’s pencil drawings inside the cabin to make the kids feel more comfortable.
For Khogyani, that’s when the memories started to flow. His emotions surprised him. Suddenly he was not a fearless globetrotter but this anxious nine-year-old boy leaving Afghanistan.
âThere were a lot of kids on the flight, and each in some way reminded me of our own escape,â he says.
He thrived in America and he wants to help other immigrants to do the same.
One of the currencies of the United States is E Pluribus Unum, which in Latin means “Out of Many, One”. The motto, adopted in 1776, reflects the belief that the United States becomes stronger when it welcomes people of all types of backgrounds and beliefs.
Khogyani tried to honor this motto.
He lives in Phoenix, Arizona with his wife and their 14-year-old twins. He taught his children about their heritage and Afghan values ââsuch as dignity, humility and hospitality. He says to his children, and to all who want to listen to him, the same thing about his people:
âYou will never meet an Afghan ready to give up,â he said.
âThe United States is the land of opportunity,â he says. “If you are willing to work hard, no one will stop you from having what you want to accomplish.”
It may sound like a platitude, but history backs it up. Immigrants made the United States one of the most powerful nations in the world. They work hard at jobs that many others refuse to do, and they do not take many of our freedoms for granted.
Immigrants are almost twice as likely to start businesses as native Americans. Companies like Apple, Google and Amazon were founded by immigrants or their children.
Many Afghan children are now making the same trip Khogyani took over 40 years ago.
They, like Khogyani, will become Americans.
His gift to them: hope
Bob Miller, a United Airline pilot and friend, says Khogyani is “the preeminent example of the American dream”.
Miller is optimistic about the future of Afghan refugees in the United States, in part because of Khogyani’s trip.
âThis is really the start for these Afghan refugees,â Miller says. “They came to America with just the clothes on their backs, but it’s not over yet.”
Khogyani says there was a remark that kept coming back during his conversations with Afghans about flights to America.
As the evacuees watched Khogyani, resplendent in his United Airlines captain’s uniform, many kept saying a word.
It was hope.
âMany of them have told me that they are proud of me,â he said, âand that I gave them hope that the future will be bright.â
It was something only Khogyani could give because he had made the same journey and built a new prosperous life.
He never gave up. He doesn’t think they will either.