Afghan photojournalist Massoud Hossaini had to flee Kabul when the country’s democratic government collapsed in 2021. Photo by Atefah Hassani.

Massoud Hossaini’s crystal Pulitzer Prize sits buried in the yard of his old house, under a layer of concrete. 

The Afghan photojournalist did not have time to pack the award when he rushed to leave Kabul as the country’s democratic government collapsed around him in 2021. He didn’t even have time to pack matching shoes or socks (and it turns out they weren’t). 

“It was a really emotional time for me because I thought when the plane took off, ‘Twenty years of my life is done,’” Hossaini told me recently. 

Hossaini recently landed in Pittsburgh — after stops in Holland and New Zealand — to restart his life, this time as a photographer for Trib Total Media. We met the day after his first assignment Downtown. This phase of Hossaini’s life and career will start out slower than the 20 years he spent as a war correspondent, but he said he wants that now. 

The Trib has made a point of hiring refugee journalists from Afghanistan. Trib Total Media President and CEO Jennifer Bertetto serves on the media freedom board of the World Association of News Publishers (WAN-IFRA), and she knows these journalists need work in the U.S.

The Trib committed to hiring up to five Afghan journalists, agreeing to pay for bringing their families to Pittsburgh, providing a housing allowance and paying them as employees. So far, they have hired two of them because of delays caused by legal issues, entry visas and work permits. 

Another Afghan journalist, Fahim Abed, had been a reporter and video journalist for The New York Times in Kabul, but when he escaped to the U.S. and needed a job, the Trib put him to work in early 2022. He stayed a few months before going back to work for The New York Times

In Afghanistan, Massoud Hossaini (far right) participated in approximately 55 embeds with the U.S. Marines, Army and special forces. Photo by Massoud Hossaini.

“We felt it was the least we could do with what they had been through and what they were facing,” Bertetto told me. “It made sense that we could do more, so we should do more.” 

Bertetto, who was recently named Editor & Publisher’s Publisher of the Year, said it makes sense for the Trib to help these people: “They are journalists, and we’re a company full of journalists.” 

The Trib was instrumental from the start by offering jobs to Afghan journalists who were displaced when the Taliban took over the country, said Andrew Heslop, WAN-IFRA’s Paris-based executive director for press freedom. The Trib inspired the organization to put out a call to other news outlets to also provide jobs and financial assistance, he said. 

“It is truly inspiring to see companies like the Trib take a lead in ensuring not only that the spotlight is maintained, but that practical help reaches those in need,” Heslop told me by email. “Not only does it encourage others to get involved, but it sends a strong message to journalists dealing with catastrophe that they are not alone, that the profession is there for them, and that our common humanity prevails.”

In Afghanistan, Hossaini participated in about 55 embeds with the U.S. Marines, Army and special forces. He won the Pulitzer in 2012 for a photograph he took the previous December while working for Agence France-Presse that shows a girl screaming in the moments after a suicide bomb attack. 

The last big story Hossaini witnessed in Afghanistan was the one he didn’t want to tell, about the failure of his country’s democratically elected government. With the Taliban liberating parts of the country, Hossaini made plans to fly out to Holland, where he still had an active visa. 

On the day of his flight, he woke early in the morning to hear fighting just a short drive from his home and learned that the presidential palace was being evacuated. Government soldiers and police officers were shedding their uniforms and desperately hiding them. 

Hossaini made it to his plane, but the pilots would not take off without instructions from a flight tower that was no longer staffed. 

“If you don’t go, they will kill us,” Hossaini pleaded with the pilots, who eventually agreed to fly the plane. 

Massoud Hossaini has ideas for three books and wants to mount an exhibition of his photographs from covering America’s longest war. Photo by Massoud Hossaini.

Hossaini has gotten eight family members out of the country, but 10 remain. Because he was on the Taliban’s death list, Hossaini asked a brother who stayed behind to place his writings, books and journalism prizes in a plastic box and bury them. 

Hossaini had lived the life of a refugee before, escaping as a child with his family to Iran before they eventually could return to Afghanistan. 

“This is the third time I have started my life from zero,” Hossaini said. 

This time might be the easiest. He already had an E11 visa, which is reserved for people who have an “extraordinary ability in the sciences, arts, education, business or athletics.” Having an employer helped him gain access to the country. 

The Trib offered him a position in January, and he has since obtained a Social Security number, a green card and a place to stay in the City View Apartments. He plans to get a driver’s license in the coming days. 

“It was so fast,” he told me. “Now I’m completely settled, and I can start my life.” 

Hossaini has ideas for three books and wants to mount an exhibition of his photographs from covering America’s longest war. People want to know what happened, he said, even if the Western governments want to move on. He hosted an exhibit in Wellington, New Zealand that drew 350 people on opening night, more than double the gallery’s capacity. 

For now, Hossaini seems to be enjoying getting to know his new city. He has been posting photographs of Pittsburgh on his Instagram account

Does all that mean that he’s finally putting down permanent roots? “I don’t know that,” he said, “but I’m happy for now.”

Andrew Conte, founding director of the Center for Media Innovation at Point Park University, writes the On Media column at NEXTpittsburgh with support from The Heinz Endowments.