Photojournalist Joël Van Houdt Captures Afghan Experiences Abroad

By Nasra Osman

Kuja Meri? is a Dari phrase which can be translated as, “Where are you going?” The phrase has been adopted as the title of the independent, Dutch, photojournalist Joël Van Houdt’s project on the Afghan diaspora. Van Houdt, who lived in Afghanistan, documents key parts of the journeys of Afghans going from their home to a number of other countries around the globe. While news coverage sensationalized refugee arrivals on the borders of European countries, very little imagery has been shown from less dramatic sojourns, which are often, in Van Houdt’s words, “less visual places.”

The project serves as a means for educating the world, at large, on the struggles of ordinary citizens of Afghanistan as they encounter new environments. At the same time, Van Houdt designed the project with an Afghan audience in mind.  He addressed Afghans directly by establishing an exhibit in the center of Kabul, featuring large scale photos he took during his time spent with Afghans migrating to new countries between 2013-2017 [1]. The images on the wall (as in Image 1, below) depict challenges and many times the hostilities Afghans experience while abroad, in addition to more mundane activities of daily life.

Image of exhibit of Kabul Afghanistan

Image 1. Afghanistan, Kabul, October, November 2017
Kuja Meri exhibition in central Kabul.
Photo: Joel van Houdt, All Rights Reserved


Van Houdt stands out to me amongst other journalists because he invested so much of himself in the immigrants and refugees his work was meant to speak to. He immersed himself in the same journey that they were taking by actually joining them, even riding in boats with them as they traveled across the world, and then continuing to document their stories after they arrived in their destination countries.

Afghan Migrants

Afghans are choosing to leave in large numbers with complex ramifications for Afghanistan’s citizens’ struggle. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), around 80,000 Afghans applied for asylum in Europe in the first half of 2015. [2]. With the country’s worsening security situation and rising rates of unemployment, many were driven away. Considering the thousands of young people looking for opportunities, Europe became idealized as the place to seek a better life. The means some took to get there was illegal and often  risky; but their decision was entirely rational considering the cost of staying in Afghanistan.  The logic of their decision is sound for their individual lives; but, unfortunately, the implications for the country, as a whole, put that decision in question.

The decision to immigrate to another country is particularly problematic in light of Afghanistan’s economic need for young people. According to the head of the Department for Refugees and Repatriation in Parwan province, 150,000 Afghans applied for asylum in 44 countries in 2015, most of whom were young adults [3]. The country’s opportunity it stunted to further develop, with the initial Afghan workforce leaving for Europe. If younger people are leaving, who will be left to restore the foundations of their country?


Stages Afghan Migrants Go Through

Image of man's back, lash marks from Iranian police.

Image 2. Afghanistan, Nimruz, September 4, 2012
An Afghan recently deported from Iran, displaying marks he claims he received from being whipped by Iranian border guards. Outside the main mosque in Zaranj.
Photo: Joel van Houdt
All rights reserved.

Among the photos taken by Van Houdt, it’s easy to observe the difficult conditions the refugees lived through in en route and the obstacles they had to face once in a new country. Typically, immigration takes place because there is hope that the new country will provide a better life. But it is never as easy as it sounds. The steps required to reach their desired destination is a long and arduous process that can potentially take years.

For Afghan refugees, their first obstacle is getting across their own border. The police catch many people. The photos show evidence of the beatings, torture, imprisonment, and even death of some of the Afghan migrants (right). Image 2 depicts a man deported from Iran after being whipped by Iranian border guards. Iran, the country on Afghanistan’s Western frontier, isn’t the only country Afghanistan borders, with Pakistan, China, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Turkmenistan surrounding the country.

Another route out of the country is to the southeast and goes overland to Indonesia, and then by boat Image 3.  The immensely long journey over land and spanning several countries is followed by an ocean journey that often lasts for days. During the time Van Houdt was documenting this route the final destination was usually Australia.  Since Australia’s migration legislation in 2013, however, it has become less common.

Image 3. Indian Ocean Morning, the second day of a three day boat journey from Indonesia to Australia. On the deck of a 30-foot long boat carrying asylum seekers. Photo: Joel van Houdt
All rights reserved

Image of people sleeping in the cold.

Image 4. Serbia, Belgrade, December 28, 2016
Afghan men sleep in an unheated warehouse in sub-zero temperatures behind the central train station of the Serbian capital Belgrade. Photo: Joel van Houdt
All rights reserved.

Even after the aforementioned trials crossing the border, there are yet more travails waiting to confront those who flee Afghanistan. Assuming they make it by land or boat to their destination, it will then be a matter of finding a new life. The discrimination they face for not speaking the language or looking the same as everyone else makes it very difficult to make their new country home. It’s likely not a problem immigrants initially consider because the problems back in their home country are much more severe in comparison. The hardship of overcoming the language, culture, housing, work, and transportation barrier is one that takes time. Image 4 (left) shows Afghan men after arriving in Serbia sleeping in an unheated warehouse where the temperatures can reach below zero degrees Celsius.

Personal Experience

The experiences depicted in Van Houdt’s Kuja Meri photos are ones I know only too well. My family and I migrated to America in 2010 and the journey was full of travails. We left Sudan because the conditions came to be unlivable for us. Due to the living prices increasing and an unstable economy that often experienced currency inflation, finding a job got harder and harder, even for those with an education. Women’s experience of this was doubly harsh because of the inequities between men and women in Sudan. Thus, for us, it was an obvious choice to migrate, considering my sisters and I are five girls.

The decision to migrate was indeed clear to us for the aforementioned factors. Yet my parents feared they might be making the wrong choice. The final decision to leave one’s home country comes at the end of a long deliberation between impossible choices. The resolve then continues but only under continued uncertainty. What outcomes might we face? What would be our circumstances once we moved to a new country with a completely different environment than what we were used to?

My parents were especially concerned that if we moved from Sudan we would forget about our Sudanese traditions, culture, religion, and our native tongue, Arabic. My mother holds our Sudanese culture dearly to her heart. As she says, it’s our identity and has shaped who we are.

Once my parents decided to move from their beloved country, their resolve had to be strong. The paperwork alone took several years. The logistics of actually submitting the paperwork was in itself a difficult task, let alone obtaining all the necessary approvals. We had to travel to Egypt to complete the process of completing them. Then, it took over a year to hear back. The waiting process was nerve-racking. At times, it got to a point where my parents lost hope.

With the relief of finally receiving the approval to move to America, my parents had to also face the reality that they would be leaving their families behind.  They they wanted their children to have a better and brighter future but it didn’t lessen the feeling of loss they experienced with that.

The struggles and sacrifices of our story remain a part of me and make me proud of my family.  The experience we shared brought my sisters and I to where we are today and who we are as Americans. The pictures taken by Mr. Van Houdt reflect hardships similar to the ones we faced as we attempted to settle into our new lives.

I am so grateful I have a strong family and loving parents.  The roof over our heads and the food on our table are symbolic to me of my father’s hard work and sacrifices. I am so thankful to him and the jobs he worked, sometimes two or three jobs at a time to make ends meet. I know I have a unique perspective because of my story and I am thankful for it despite the hardships I experienced along the way.  The people in these pictures also have stories that go far beyond what we can see.


Image of people in food line.

Image 5. Serbia, Belgrade, December 23, 2016
An Afghan man feeds pigeons while Afghans and Pakistanis line up for food handouts near the train station in Belgrade. Volunteers bring a meal once a day at 1pm. The refugees and migrants stay in sub-zero temperatures in derelict warehouses behind the central train and bus station in the Serbian capital Belgrade. Many have been stuck here for months while trying to cross the closed borders with Hungary or Croatia. There are not enough government facilities but many also prefer not to apply for asylum in Serbia and try to continue their journey to Northern Europe.
Photo: Joel van Houdt
All rights reserved.

























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