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Afghan photographer now living in Ireland: ‘Life goes very fast and there are no guarantees; you have to be with your family’

Hannah McCarthy

11 Aug 2022

Afghan photographer Barialai Khoshhal living in Ireland tells the story of his fellow evacuees in Ireland in new exhibition

A year on from the fall of Kabul, a photographer has used his talents to tell the story of how some of his fellow Afghans have started new lives in Ireland since fleeing the Taliban.

For Barialai Khoshhal, his work as a photographer has proved a welcome distraction as he fears for the safety of his family who are scattered across Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It wasn’t hard for him to empathise with his subjects as he arrived in Ireland last October after fleeing the new Taliban regime himself.

His new exhibition, Keeping Home and Hope Alive, launches in Dublin today and is his way of marking the fall of Kabul in August last year.

He was born in the city of Kandahar during the last Taliban regime. One of his first projects as a fledgling photographer was to document the local religious schools in the conservative Pashtun city.

At the schools, known as madrassas, young children would learn to read and recite the Koran by heart. Concerned about links between these schools and extremist groups, his father did not allow him to go to the madrassas himself.

However, he says: “I was in love with photography, and I didn’t care about the danger. I was still in school, and I would knock on the door of the madrassas and ask if I could take some photos. I had my own mindset of what they would be like but most of them were very nice and friendly.”

He worked between Kandahar and the Afghan capital Kabul and his images depicting everyday life earned him awards and led to exhibitions at western embassies in Kabul.

His last project in Afghanistan before the Taliban returned focused on the country’s frontline reporters. Journalism is one of the most dangerous professions in Afghanistan and, after women’s rights, the local press has been one of the most visible casualties of the Taliban’s return.

His family attempted to flee their home on the return of the Taliban to power and they are now scattered across many countries. His wife and son remain in Kandahar. Of his son, who turned two in June, he said: “I haven’t seen him in almost a year.” His wife, a maths teacher at a high school for girls, has been unable to work after it was shut by the Taliban.

One of his sisters is living in a refugee camp with her two children in Qatar while another sister and her son succeeded in reaching the US after travelling through Pakistan.

His mother had hoped to travel with her daughter to the US but has been stuck in the Pakistani capital, Islamabad, for the past eight months while the US Embassy has her passport.

“She hasn’t been well and needed an operation. She’s better now but it’s been eight months now that she’s been waiting for her visa – it’s crazy.”

Mr Khoshhal, who is now living in Fairview, Dublin, finds life without his family hard. “We used to drink tea together every afternoon,” he says. “Life goes very fast and there are no guarantees; you have to be with your family.”

Returning to work as a photographer has kept his mind busy as he worries about his family. His first project in Ireland focused on Afghan designer Salem Matin, as he showcased his new collection of women’s clothing at Dublin Castle.

But many of the Afghans evacuated to Ireland have had to change careers. For his current exhibition, Mr Khoshhal photographed Fatema Mohammadi, a former United Nations worker who is now teaching English to Ukrainians at University College Dublin ( UCD).

He says many of the Afghans he interviewed for his exhibition were shocked by the Irish families who opened their homes to them. “They treated them like their own family.”

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