Afghan Refugees Making A Life in Sacramento

"From Afghanistan to Sacramento"- Sacramento Magazine Assignment (January 2022 Feature)

In November (2021), I took on an editorial assignment to photograph a feature spread for Sacramento Magazine, titled "From Afghanistan to Sacramento," written by Mark Billingsley. I was certainly compelled to do this assignment because of my deep compassion for migrants and especially refugees. Growing up in the southern border of Texas (San Benito), crossing into Mexico I've seen firsthand what poverty looks like. Looking back at it, it saddens me to have seen a young adolescent, as young as 6 years old, walk up to you to sell you a box of cigarettes. Now that I have a child of my own at nearly 5 years old, it paints a daunting picture that my life, OUR lives, could have been so much different, if we weren't so lucky in this game called LIFE. It's the biggest lotto that everyone is forced to play because YOUR LIFE would have been different if you were born in a different country/city, especially one that lacks all the opportunities that the United States would offer. We are lucky to be born as US Citizens and we certainly must be considerate and compassionate to those who wish for a simple opportunity to live life safely and happily. 

To be honest, I didn't know the "technical" definition of what the differences were between migrant and refugee. A quick google search brought me to the following definition:

The main difference is CHOICE. Simply speaking, a migrant is someone who chooses to move, and a refugee is someone who has been FORCED from their home.

In the span of two days, I photographed 3 families who are Afghanistan refugees who had no choice but to move to the Sacramento region for their safety. I want to share this with you to give you my perspective and first impressions of these families who are here to live peacefully while striving to make something for themselves and their families. 

(Below Image): Rameen Aziz, age 39, gives a gentle smile as we carry a conversation in their living room about all-things-life -- stock trades, photography, kids, and coffee.

(Right Image): Rameen Aziz (far right) with children Imaan, Abram, and Yousof (left to right, ages 13, 6, and 11). Photo by Ryan Angel Meza for Sacramento Magazine, January 2022.

The first family I tried to meet was with Rameen Aziz. It was apparent initially how hesitant Rameen perceived to be--didn't take my calls or return my voice messages.

So, I proceeded to text him and express my shared concerns, while encouraging him that there is a mutual and positive outcome that could stem from this article. 

His courage for this action would suggest that Sacramento is a safe-haven for other refugees like himself and strengthen the belief that the American Dream is still alive. 

Rameen originally requested to only have his children shown while he and his wife's faces be blurred from the photo, however, I suggested that perhaps we could cover their faces with a garment or I could try to light-the-scene in a way that didn't highlight their faces as clearly.

Personally, I felt that could hinder the impact of the visual(s) taken, therefore advised otherwise--to show their faces would be in many ways liberating and perhaps inviting if I can connect the viewer to a face that shows a caring man, a "father figure," and someone who would be a contributing member to society. 

I say "contributing member to society" because I know there are many opposing views that dislike the idea of having refugees in our state/city, because they assume they are only here to absorb "free" resources; a "government handout." The family featured in this story, prove otherwise.

Agreeing to reveal their faces for the photo would also symbolically mean they didn't have to hide anymore, especially not from us.

When I arrived at the apartment residence of Rameen in Carmichael, I noticed other young middle-eastern children playing carelessly and freely outside in the parking lot without their parents in sight. I precariously say this only to point out that they must feel safe here which make me wonder what their contrasting circumstances may have been like in Afghanistan. 

As mentioned in the article, Rameen states, "There were several times this past summer when I thought my life might be over. Just heading out to shop for food resulted in frequent stops by roving bands of Taliban fighters."

When I finally met Rameen, I certainly felt welcomed and his hospitality to offer a cup of coffee shows me his thoughtfulness and courtesy towards a welcomed stranger. His warm soul and calm personality with glimpses of excitement for photography (as he shows me his album of wedding photos he took for his cousin) created a space for all of us to connect organically. 

(Left Image) Rameen's two younger boys, Abram and Yousof (6 and 11 years old) were very much excited as I walked in their apartment with more than a handful of gear; which I guess would intrigue and excite anyone who has the slightest clue to the technicalities of portraiture. 

I found it humorously endearing to see the younger boys wearing the same tie-dye sweaters given that I am an identical twin whose parents always made sure to have matching clothing. 

Their mother, Sweeta, who has a debilitating health condition demands of her to be on a wheelchair, was not present in the residence at the time because she was ill and staying at a relative's house.

The two-bedroom apartment that houses their family of six was slightly concerning, but easy to overlook as I observed a respectful and cordial relationship amongst everyone.

As I navigated my way throughout the narrow hallways, I couldn't help but wonder how challenging it may be for Sweeta to make her way around with or without a wheelchair. 

Then, I was greeted by a joyful and spirited teenager, Imaan, 13,  who is also showing interest in my presence as I proceeded to unload and prep my light stands. You can gain a sense of the relationship between Imaan and the two younger boys, as it seemed like she was looked up to by them. 

Despite much of the respect for each other, I still wonder if/how  the older children cope with the demands for privacy and simply being a teenager. 

(Right Image: Imaan, Age 13, says she wants to be a film actress.)

After meeting Imaan, I was surprised by their tall and dapperly dressed eldest son, (bottom image) Robeen (age 17), who seems primed and poised with a steadfast demeanor to take on a four year college and complete it in one year. Robeen mentions he is excited to finish high school and plans to pursue software development or computer engineering. 

My time with the Aziz family, although brief, was very impactful and I will certainly keep in touch with them to share with you their progress and transition here in Sacramento. I look forward to learning more about the Aziz family but you certainly can get an idea of their life in Afghanistan by reading the article in Sacramento Magazine.

Mohammad Naikbeen and Family 

Ride-sharing Driver by Day and Non-Profit CEO by Night

Caption: Mohammad Naikbeen's son Anayat (age 3) playing in their backyard trampoline with siblings during sunset.

Caption: Mohammad Naikbeen works as a ride-sharing driver by day and then serves as CEO for the California Hazara Community at night.

Mohammad Naikbeen, age 37, works as the CEO of a nonprofit group in North Highlands called the California Hazara Community. The Hazaras are an ethnic minority in Afghanistan and frequently targeted  by Taliban forces.

Caption: Mohammad Naikbeen's son Anayat (age 3) playing in their backyard trampoline with four other siblings during sunset.

The East Market & Restaurant (Owner: Mohammad Aalemkhiel)

(Image Above) Khan Ali Maqsudi, an Afghan refugee has worked for Mohammad Aalemkhiel at The East Market and Restaurant since 2016. The market makes 800 Afghan naan breads each day.

Caption: Mohammad Aalemkhiel stands proudly in front of his market and restaurant, The East Market & Restaurant (established in 2015). 

Using Format