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Story Publication logo August 27, 2022

‘There Is No More Life in Afghanistan.’ How One Refugee Photographer Is Rebuilding in San Diego

A woman sits on the floor next to a row of paintings that are on the floor propped up on a white wall

August 15 marked the one-year anniversary of the Taliban takeover in Afghanistan that prompted tens...

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Omer Khan narrowly fled Afghanistan as the Taliban took over one year ago. Now he’s creating a new body of work in San Diego, but can’t shake the images from his home.

Photographer Omer Khan in front of a Russian tank in Kabul. Image courtesy of Omer Khan. Afghanistan, 2022.

On Aug. 24, 2021, Omer Khan, a freelance photographer from Kabul, Afghanistan, grabbed his camera and a few other belongings as he escaped his homeland with his wife, son, and brother, nine days after the Taliban entered Kabul and took control of the capital.

Khan is among the more than 80,000 refugees who were able to evacuate Afghanistan. He navigated chaos and danger at the Kabul airport before making his way onto a crammed U.S. military flight, with the United States as the final destination.

One year later, Khan—who has created a new life for himself and his family in El Cajon—reflects on what he left behind in Afghanistan and what he hopes for his future in the U.S.

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“We lost everything. We lost our [identity], home, our life.”

Afghan National Army soldiers in Kabul. Image by Omer Khan. Afghanistan, 2021.

A view of Kabul, a sprawling city of almost 6 million people. Image by Omer Khan. Afghanistan, 2020.

A man sells balloons in Kabul. Image by Omer Khan. Afghanistan, 2021.

Khan’s passion for photography started in 2014, when he enrolled in a journalism program at a private university in Kabul. He worked as a photographer for television stations and NGOs and rented a gallery space with his brother at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul, where he sold his photos and Afghan handicrafts.

Khan ventured to all corners of Afghanistan to document the people and landscapes of his country. Two years before fleeing, he published about 250 copies of a photo book titled “Hidden Treasure” so he could “show the positive side of Afghanistan, the unseen face of Afghanistan, to the world.”

He was able to bring only one copy on his flight out of Afghanistan.

Omer Khan goes through his photo book, Hidden Treasure, on August 22, 2022. It was the only copy he was able to bring with him when he evacuated from Afghanistan. Here, Khan looks at his photos taken in 2018 of Buzkashi, Afghanistan’s national sport that was banned by the Taliban from 1996-2001. Image by Valerie Plesch/The San Diego Union-Tribune. United States.

On August 15, as news spread that the Taliban had taken over Kabul, Khan was at his gallery. His wife, Hasiba, called and told him to come home.

“No one could believe that the Taliban would take over Afghanistan again,” he said.

Because of his affiliation with the embassy, Khan knew he couldn’t stay in Afghanistan. The Taliban was already hunting Afghans who had worked with Americans.

His employer at the embassy told him to expect a signal when it was time to be evacuated.

After waiting for nine days and hearing nothing, Khan decided to head to the airport with his wife, son, and brother.

The move paid off. Khan caught a U.S. military relief flight on August 25.

He left behind his father, mother, sister, and brother.

Before evacuating, Khan documented the immediate aftermath of the Taliban takeover, including images of women at a Kabul beauty salon that were defaced. It was the last set of photos he took in Afghanistan.

Left: Omer Khan with his son Umair aboard a U.S. military plane bound for Qatar after evacuating from Afghanistan on August 25, 2021. Right: Images of women from a beauty parlor salon in Kabul that were defaced by the Taliban on August 15, 2021, the day they took control of the capital. Image by Omer Khan.

After spending three months at Camp Atterbury in Indiana, which housed thousands of Afghan evacuees, Khan and his family settled in El Cajon.

With the help of Jewish Family Services, a resettlement agency working with Afghan refugees, Khan found a one-bedroom apartment in January that’s close to work, as well as markets selling traditional Afghan food.

Omer Khan with his son Umair and wife Hasiba outside their apartment complex in El Cajon on August 22, 2022. A resettlement agency helped Khan find his apartment shortly after he and his family arrived in San Diego, and after spending three months at an army base in Indiana that housed Afghan refugees following the fall of Kabul. Image by Valerie Plesch/The San Diego Union-Tribune. United States.

Khan also found work at Subway as a Sandwich Artist, which is how Subway describes its workers who prepare sandwiches. He and his older brother send about $400 every month to his family back home. Under Taliban rule, Afghanistan’s economy has plummeted, and families are struggling to keep afloat.

He hopes to work again as a photographer in San Diego.

“Here life is very different than in Afghanistan,” he said. “But I’m happy now being here. Life is good.”

Omer Khan cleans up at the end of his shift at Subway on August 21, 2022 in El Cajon. He works as a sandwich artist and sends part of his salary to his family in Kabul. Image by Valerie Plesch/The San Diego Union-Tribune. United States.

Khan and his family arrived in the U.S. on humanitarian parole, which allows them to live and work for two years. He and tens of thousands of other Afghan refugees who evacuated do not have a clear path to stay in the country.

The Biden administration has asked Congress to pass the Afghan Adjustment Act, which would streamline the process for visa candidates who worked for the U.S government and allow Afghans to get legal status in the U.S.

Khan is currently seeking asylum so he can stay in the country.

Omer Khan drinks tea and eats nuts with his son Umair and wife Hasbia after coming home from work on August 21, 2022 in El Cajon. Image by Valerie Plesch/The San Diego Union-Tribune. United States.

During his free time, Khan goes through the three hard drives that he was able to bring with him from Afghanistan, searching for photos that he didn’t publish yet on his Instagram or Facebook.

A man on his horse that people can pay to ride at Qargha Lake on the outskirts of Kabul. Image by Omer Khan. Afghanistan, 2020.

A man sells birds at the Ka Faroshi Bird Market in Kabul. Image by Omer Khan. Afghanistan, 2021.

The landscape in Samangan province, central Afghanistan, in 2020. Image by Omer Khan.

Buzkashi, Afghanistan’s national sport that was banned by the Taliban from 1996 to 2001, in the Paryan district of Panjshir province. Image by Omer Khan. Afghanistan, 2018.

A man sells fish on the side of the Kabul-Jalalabad Highway, 2020. Image by Omer Khan. Afghanistan.

A woman in a burqa walks through the Mandawai market, one of Kabul’s biggest and most crowded markets. Image by Omer Khan. Afghanistan, 2021.

On his Instagram, he continues to post photos of his homeland, along with new photos and videos from San Diego. Khan loves exploring and photographing the region, particularly the architecture of downtown and the beach in La Jolla.

La Jolla beach at sunset in November 2021. Image by Omer Khan. United States.

One year after escaping Afghanistan, Khan still has trouble seeing pictures from home.

“It’s like a dream, everything changed in one night,” he said.

Khan remembers thinking about his son’s future as he fled Afghanistan.

“This will be good for him. I spent all of my childhood in war. It is good for him to spend his life and be raised in a good situation and good area.

“San Diego is my home. There is no more life in Afghanistan.”

Omer Khan photographs surfers in La Jolla on August 22, 2022. Khan enjoys photographing the beach at the La Jolla at sunset. “Whenever I come to the beach, when I hear the sound of the ocean, and the waves, it makes me feel comfortable. Just walking from one side of the ocean to the other side of the ocean, taking pictures, it makes me feel more comfortable. When the sun goes down, then I go back home.” Image by Valerie Plesch/The San Diego Union-Tribune. United States.



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