How do you make sure a 4-year-old boy is happy when he’s nearly 8,000 miles away from home — and his parents?
How do you shield him from the violence that continues to take his family and friends? How do you start over in a new country as his mother, not his older brother?
Zabih Khan’s life has revolved around those questions since he fled Afghanistan with his baby brother, Mojib, in tow. The eldest brother of nine siblings, only he and Mojib, the youngest child, were able to escape their country last August as U.S. troops departed and the country fell to the Taliban.
Their family, members of the persecuted Hazara ethnic minority, had gotten separated at the Kabul airport. Zabih reached Qatar three days later. He called his parents. His mother, Zakia, had just one wish, the one thing she could not have. Her baby, then 3-year-old Mojib.
Nearly a year has passed since Zakia last held her little boy.
As part of Operation Allies Welcome, the U.S. has allowed more than 80,000 Afghans to enter the country since the takeover. Their experiences are all different. But Zabih and his brother illustrate a painful truth about life as refugees: Hardship doesn’t end on arriving in America. It simply changes.
Zabih, 27, has struggled to balance jobs with child care. To save enough to pay rent and buy a car. To keep Mojib from crying for the family they left behind.
“I don’t think about my happiness. Mostly I think that he should be happy,” Zabih said recently as he watched his brother play. “If he be happy, I will be happy.”
On Aug. 20, Zabih’s family joined more than a thousand people gathered outside Hamid Karzai International Airport trying to flee Kabul. The U.S. had announced a plan to withdraw troops, and the Taliban began seizing control of the country. The family was afraid.
Troops fired tear gas to control the crowds. In the chaos, Zabih stopped to help an older woman who was being trampled near the gate. Then he carried his crying brother in his arms as he ran. He and Mojib got into the airport. Their family did not.
Once inside, his calls to his parents wouldn’t go through. Then his phone died.
As the days passed, Zabih kept busy translating for Afghans who could not speak English. His younger brother, who usually had a ready smile that dimpled his cheeks and revealed a small gap between his front teeth, was listless and confused. Mojib wanted his mom.
On Aug. 23, the brothers were seated on the floor of a transport plane with dozens of other Afghans as they flew to Qatar. Zabih held the boy on his lap until his arms grew tired. A family offered a black garbage bag filled with personal items as a mattress for Mojib to sleep on. It was their first time on a plane.
After they landed, Zabih called his mom and told her they were no longer in Kabul.
“Bring back my son,” she cried.
Zabih and Mojib once lived in a five-bedroom home in Kabul. Zabih shared a room with a younger brother. Mojib slept with their parents. A nearly 23-year age gap separates the brothers. They lived parallel lives.
Zabih, the oldest son, worked every day running clothing stores and a nearby language center — like the one where he’d learned English — to help support his family. He’d gotten a degree in mining engineering but couldn’t get a job in the field.
By the time Zabih returned home around 9 p.m. each night, Mojib was in bed. It was their mother, Zakia, who fed, bathed and sang the little boy to sleep. Mojib didn’t even know his older brother’s name, referring to him by his nickname, “Engineer.”
Zakia worried for her children every time they left the house. Hazaras, who make up between 10% and 20% of the population in Afghanistan, are mostly Shiite Muslim — a minority in the mostly Sunni country. The Islamic State’s affiliate in the country counts Shiites as apostates who must be killed.
In May 2021, a triple bombing killed nearly 100 people in the largely Shiite neighborhood of Dasht-e-Barchi. The majority were Hazara schoolgirls. Soon after, minibuses were blown up in the same neighborhood, killing 18 people.
“Hazara people, when we leave our home, we cannot believe that at night we will come home,” Zabih said. “Every day they kill us. That is our life.”
It was fear for her children’s safety that eventually convinced Zakia that Mojib would be out of harm’s way in the U.S. with her eldest son. Zabih found himself thrust into parenthood, a circumstance as foreign as his new homeland. He’d never bathed his brother. Or thought about how many hours the little boy needed to sleep.
One night in Qatar, he learned the hard way that his brother needed to sleep in diapers. The next morning, he bathed a soiled Mojib with a water bottle.
When the brothers got to the U.S., they spent nearly six months at Ft. McCoy in Wisconsin. Zabih taught Mojib how to ride a bike, capturing video of the boy wobbling as he pedaled around the military base. On Dec. 8, they celebrated his fourth birthday with little fanfare.
Along with caring for his brother, Zabih taught English to hundreds of other Afghans on the base.
A letter of recommendation signed by a Department of Homeland Security employee described how Zabih had volunteered for hours helping “his fellow Afghans to be as prepared as possible to adjust to life in the western world.”
“The adaptability and initiative demonstrated by Mr. [Khan] cannot be overstated,” the letter said. “[His] ability to perform despite the austere conditions at Ft. McCoy has served as a shining example for others to follow.”
But there were tough times, too. Like the night he and Mojib were kicked out of family housing because Zabih did not have a wife and was not considered part of a family. The two were moved to lodging for singles.
Zabih marks those early months in the U.S. with a photo of Mojib on the base. In it, the boy’s mouth is turned into an upside-down letter “u.” He is staring into space. There are no dimples.
“Every picture has a meaning,” Zabih said. “Can you see the sadness in his face?”
The brothers resettled in San Diego in February. They didn’t know anyone.
In early April, they celebrated Ramadan with a handful of Afghan refugees in the hotel where they were living. The two didn’t stay long. Zabih didn’t want Mojib to see the other children with their moms. The little boy often awoke crying for his own.
The International Rescue Committee in San Diego, which helped the two resettle here, saw the arrival of nearly 500 Afghans within a four-month period starting in the fall. The organization helps newcomers find housing, secure employment, enroll in benefits and connect with medical providers.
But when Zabih started work, he struggled to find someone to care for his brother. He needed to put the income toward an apartment, a car and groceries. They relied on food stamps and the help of local organizations, which assisted with some meals, clothes and toys.
When Zabih started his first job at 7-Eleven, he tried to get Mojib into day care. But he couldn’t, he said, because he isn’t the boy’s parent and didn’t have the authority to enroll him. He found someone to watch Mojib in El Cajon. But he didn’t have a driver’s license or a car, so he couldn’t drop his brother off at the sitter’s. Zabih had to cut back on his hours and rely on another Afghan family living at the hotel to watch his brother.
He was careful never to let Mojib see his frustration.
“If I’m sad, never I show for the baby,” he said.
“I don’t think about my happiness. Mostly I think that he should be happy.”
— Zabih Khan on caring for his brother
On April 27, a day off from work, Zabih kept an eye on Mojib as the boy bicycled around the hotel parking lot, dressed in a red Wonder Woman cape. Mojib shared the bike and cape with other Afghan boys living nearby.
Inside their sparsely furnished hotel room, on the full-size bed the brothers shared, Mojib had piled up donated stuffed animals, including a giraffe, a gray fox and a barking dog. He’d named each one after his brothers and nephews back home.
The boy set aside clothes and shoes for his older brother in Afghanistan. They were, he said, too big for him. He did not understand how far away his loved ones remained.
Zabih kept a red prayer rug in the dresser and a California driver’s handbook, in Arabic, on the kitchen counter. Although he tried to study at night while Mojib slept, when the boy woke up alone, he’d ask his brother to come hold his hand so he could fall back asleep.
That afternoon, Zabih prepared his brother a miniature feast of fried potatoes and corn. He warned the boy to stay away from the two-burner stove as the oil began to pop. Back in Afghanistan, he rarely cooked for Mojib.
“I have to learn for this baby,” Zabih said, as he wedged a butter knife into a can of corn to open it. “To get better.”
After he laid out the plates on the small counter, Zabih held up spoonfuls of corn and fed Mojib. Eventually, the little boy waved him off.
“I want to eat this myself,” he said, exasperated, in Hazaragi.
An hour later, Zabih wrestled with getting Mojib into the bathtub.
“Ready,” Zabih called.
“No,” Mojib responded in English. He’d also learned “oh no” and “one second.”
Once in the tub, Mojib told his brother he didn’t need shampoo. Zabih washed his hair anyway, his arms flecked with soap. Zabih stepped one foot into the water to lift his brother up and out.
He pulled on the boy’s clothes, a pink Tommy Hilfiger polo and socks to match, and brushed his hair into a ponytail. He smoothed Mojib’s baby hairs and strapped a green Mandalorian watch that told the incorrect time on his skinny wrist.
Zabih showered second. Mojib always went first.
“All of my life became this baby,” said Zabih, who describes himself as a single mom. “His body became my body. He’s like my son now. Now I’m a mom.”
Like any other proud parent, Zabih’s social media accounts have filled up with photos and videos of Mojib. Smiling next to his stuffed animals. Grinning inside a mini helicopter on a carousel ride. Chasing seagulls on the beach.
Those are the ones Zabih sends to their mother — of a happy Mojib.
That April afternoon, Mojib and Zabih biked together to a nearby park. Mojib on his blue Specialized Hotrock with training wheels, and Zabih — in a gray Navy sweatshirt, emblazoned with “Semper Fortis” — on a black Schwinn.
When they played basketball and Zabih overshot the hoop, Mojib pointed and laughed, teasing his older brother. On the playground, Zabih held Mojib as the boy crossed the monkey bars.
At 8:30 p.m., after eating dinner, Zabih removed Mojib’s Paw Patrol slippers. The two settled together on the hotel bed and called home. Zakia repeated her youngest son’s name over and over, trying to get his attention.
“Ah,” Mojib responded.
“I miss you,” Zakia said in Hazaragi. As his mother spoke, the boy covered his face with his hands and curled into his brother. Zabih had to coax him into speaking with their parents.
When their siblings joined the call, they said they weren’t going to class. They were scared after a recent bombing outside Zabih’s former high school in Dasht-e-Barchi. Police said at least six people were killed and 11 injured.
The family had been struggling. Zabih’s younger sister can’t attend school because of the Taliban. Their father had had his phone stolen by armed men on the farm where he worked harvesting cucumbers. Zakia had landed in the hospital, sick with sadness to be apart from Mojib.
As they spoke on the phone, tears ran down their parents’ faces.
“Why are you crying?” Mojib asked. Zabih hung up abruptly.
“I told them to make it fun, not cry,” Zabih said, shaking his head. “They should not cry in front of the baby.”
On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Zabih — decked out in a blue vest — scanned paper plates, frozen pizza and Go-Gurt for a customer at a Walmart checkstand in El Cajon. He’d started the job in early July.
It was his third job in as many months. The first would not accommodate his need to schedule around Mojib. The second told him he had to work Sundays, the one day he needed off because the family that watched Mojib couldn’t take him. Here, he could get Sundays off.
Zabih had spent his lunch period in his newly purchased black Camry, on the phone with a representative of a nonprofit organization. They were working to bring his family to the U.S. His mom and younger sister had just gotten their first passports.
“If they be in here, they will be good,” Zabih said. “That’s the biggest thing that I want.”
The brothers also had their own legal status to worry about.
They had received parole for humanitarian reasons, a temporary status granted by the U.S. on an emergency basis. Zabih is trying to apply for asylum, but he hasn’t been able to secure legal services. One law center said it was unable to help because of “limited resources.” Others never called him back.
“A big concern for many of our families, most of the families that we’re working with, is what their legal status is moving forward,” said Donna Duvin, executive director of the International Rescue Committee in San Diego. She said the organization is in support of a proposed Afghan Adjustment Act, which would provide a pathway to permanent legal status.
After finishing his shift at Walmart, Zabih picked up his brother from a family watching the boy nearby. They returned to their relatively new apartment where they shared a small room with an Afghan roommate. Although their rent was covered through August, Zabih would soon need to pay $1,000 a month. It would eat up most of his paycheck.
If his family comes, he said, he’ll be able to take on a second job to help cover rent and other expenses. His mother would care for her baby.
Until then, Zabih will continue playing three roles at once.
Mother, father and brother.