He has walked through Antelope Canyon in northern Arizona, surrounded by swirling sandstone formations formed by lightning floods.
He has stood on the rugged Cliffs of Moher in Ireland, which rise about 700 feet across the Atlantic – a stunning emerald backdrop that has been featured in music videos, a folk song and films such as “The Princess Bride”.
He has seen sunlight dancing from the cobalt blue domes of whitewashed houses carved into a hilltop over the Aegean Sea on the Greek island of Santorini.
But the image that moved him to tears recently is not something he saw in nature. It’s something he stumbled upon while volunteering last summer during a nine-hour flight to the United States in a plane loaded with Afghan evacuees.
Khogyani stared at the anxious and drawn faces of Afghan children sitting with their parents as he realized he was looking at a younger version of himself.
“I was nine years old when I experienced similar circumstances,” says the 53-year-old Khogyani. “It all came rushing back. It was harder than I thought.”
He fled Afghanistan with his family as a boy
For the lucky ones among us, the holiday season is a time to spend time with friends and family. This year, Khogyani’s thoughts go to some Afghan families he recently met for the first time – and one he left behind.
Khogyani came into contact with these families through his daily work. 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 Civil Reserve Air Fleet to help supply commercial aircraft 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.
His grandfather was a judge and senator, while his father ruled three provinces. A shift in the country’s political climate led to escalating death threats against his family.
Khogyani still remembers the tense car ride to Kabul airport.
He was carrying a small bag. They brought no family memories, no pictures or extra clothes. He was abruptly moved from one life into an uncertain future.
“The atmosphere was very heavy,” Khogyani says. “No one said very much. My mother had not told me we would leave the country.”
He surprised Afghan evacuees by greeting them in their language
These memories were Khogyani in 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 flown there from Kabul. Over the next nine days, he accompanied 1,000 Afghan passengers on three flights from Europe to the United States, serving as an interpreter for the refugees – and a symbol of a more hopeful future.
First, he surprised the evacuees. He stood at the boarding gate and greeted them in Pashto, their own language.
“Welcome,” he said to them. “I hope you come happy.”
Many Afghans looked at him with surprise and then confusion. So relief. They started bombarding him with questions:
Where am I going? Who can I contact for help? How can I find a job?
He tried to help, but he knew there were some questions he could not answer. One major was about loneliness by leaving family members behind.
“I never saw my grandparents again,” he says. “I’ve never seen most of my extended family, and I know they’re facing the same future.”
United Airlines employees had donated diapers, baby wipes, pacifiers and blankets to the Afghan families. The overhead trash cans were filled with these donations along with chocolates and toys. Someone taped child pencil drawings on the inside of the cabin to make the kids feel more comfortable.
For Khogyani, it was there that memories began to flow back. His feelings surprised him. Suddenly, he was not a fearless world traveler, but the anxious nine-year-old boy who left Afghanistan.
“There were a lot of kids on the plane, and each one in one way or another reminded me of our own escape,” he says.
He thrives in America and he wants to help other immigrants do the same
One of the mottos of the United States is E Pluribus Unum, which is Latin for “Out of Many, One.” The motto, adopted in 1776, reflects the belief that the United States becomes stronger when it embraces people from all different types of backgrounds and beliefs.
Khogyani has tried to honor that motto.
He lives in Phoenix, Arizona, with his wife and their twin 14-year-old sons. He has taught his children about their heritage and Afghan values such as dignity, humility and hospitality. He tells his children and anyone who wants to listen the same about his people:
“You will never meet an Afghan who is willing to give up,” he says.
“The United States is the land of opportunity,” he says. “If you are willing to work hard, there is no stopping you from getting what you want to achieve.”
It may sound like platitudes, but the story backs him up. Immigrants have built the United States into one of the most powerful nations in the world. They work hard at jobs that many others refuse to perform, 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 journey that Khogyani made more than 40 years ago.
They will, like Khogyani, become Americans.
His gift to them: hope
Bob Miller, a United Airline pilot and friend, says Khogyani is the “excellent example of the American dream.”
Miller is optimistic about the future of Afghan refugees in the United States, in part because of Khogyani’s journey.
“It really is the beginning of the Afghan refugees,” Miller said. “They came to America with only the clothes on their backs, but that’s not the end of it.”
Khogyani says there was one remark that kept popping up during his conversations with Afghans on the planes to America.
While the evacuees looked at Khogyani, beaming in his United Airlines captain’s uniform, many kept evoking one word.
It was hope.
“Many of them told me that they were proud of me,” he says, “and that I gave them hope that the future would be bright.”
It was something that only Khogyani could give because he had taken their same journey and built a flourishing new life
He never gave up. He does not think they want to either.