'A lot of them told me that they were proud of me,' he said, 'and that I gave them hope that the future will be bright.'
Zak Khogyani has seen many incredible and unforgettable sights in his lifetime. From the Antelope Canyon in Northern Arizona to the Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, the 53-year-old United Airlines pilot—who is also a talented photographer—has spent a good portion of his life exploring and experiencing the many wonderous spectacles created by Mother Nature. However, the sight that touched his heart the most was one he stumbled upon while volunteering on a nine-hour flight to the US last summer. Gazing at the anxious faces of Afghan children fleeing their homes with their parents, Khogyani realized he was staring back at a younger version of himself.
"I was nine years old when I experienced similar circumstances," Khogyani, who has been a pilot for United Airlines for 27 years, told CNN. "It all came rushing back. It was harder than I thought." Back when he was a young boy in Afghanistan, Khogyani's father governed three provinces in the country while his grandfather was a judge and a senator. However, a shift in the country's political climate led to a rise in death threats against his family and they had to immediately leave the place they called home. Khogyani still remembers the tense car ride to Kabul airport. All he had with him that day was one small bag.
"The atmosphere was very heavy," Khogyani recalled. "Nobody said very much. My mother had not told me that we would leave the country." These memories lay heavy on his mind when the Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in August and the Pentagon called on the Civil Reserve Air Fleet to help supply commercial planes for the emergency evacuation of Americans and Afghan allies. He wrote to the CEO of United Airlines, volunteering to help, and was given permission to join the airlift.
Khogyani flew to an airbase in Germany to meet the evacuees, who had been flown there from Kabul. Over the next nine days, he accompanied 1000 Afghan passengers on three flights from Europe to the United States. Aside from serving as an interpreter for the refugees, he also became a symbol of a more hopeful future for them. He stood at the boarding gate and greeted them in Pashto, their own language. "Welcome," he told them. "I hope you come joyfully." He vividly remembers how the refugees went through a myriad of emotions—surprise, confusion and then, relief—before bombarding him with questions about their future.
Although Khogyani tried his best to help, he knew there were some questions he could not answer. One of the most important ones: the sorrow of leaving family members behind. "I never saw my grandparents again," he said. "I never saw most of my extended family, and I know they face the same future." He also revealed that there was one remark that kept coming up during his conversations with Afghans on the flights. "A lot of them told me that they were proud of me," he said, "and that I gave them hope that the future will be bright."
Khogyani, who lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife and their twin 14-year-olds, revealed that he has taught his sons about their heritage and Afghan values such as dignity, humility and hospitality. "You will never meet an Afghan who is willing to give up," he shared. He plans to donate half of the proceeds he earns from the sale of his photographs this year to charities that benefit refugees. "The United States is the land of opportunity," Khogyani said. "If you are willing to work hard no one is going to stop you from having what you want to achieve." Bob Miller, a United Airline pilot and friend of Khogyani's believes that his dear friend is the "preeminent example of the American dream." Knowing Khogyani's journey, Miller is optimistic about the Afghan refugees' futures in the US. "It really is the beginning for those Afghan refugees," Miller said. "They came to America with just the clothes on their back, but that's not the end of it."