‘When we moved here, Upper Brookville was right below the final approach path for aircraft arriving into JFK. I loved the airplanes passing by.’
Amin Khwaja, Glen Head
“Aviation is a fascination that any child might have no matter where they are in the world; just look up in the sky. I was born in Kabul, Afghanistan, in late ’79, just as the Russian tanks were rolling down Kabul streets. We emigrated as refugees, living in New Delhi, India, for about a year, then made our second move, following my dad’s side of the family to Saudi Arabia.
“My mom’s family had already emigrated to the U.S. at that point, so we came to Long Island around late ’84. Initially we lived from house to house in Dix Hills with family until we were more established, from there we moved to Upper Brookville and have been here ever since 1987.
“The funny part is when we moved here, Upper Brookville was right below the final approach path for aircraft arriving into JFK. I loved the airplanes passing by. I made up a chart, I was fascinated by the whole aviation perspective of airplanes coming through. I got hooked on airplanes, and being under the flight path, I got a little more intrigued. It was just one of those bugs that just stayed with me.
“It wasn’t easy to persuade my parents. I was the only one in our family who decided to pursue this path; everyone else was in business. My dad had no knowledge of aviation at all. Every time I asked him, he never said no, and he never said yes. He gave a silent OK. My mom was pretty vocal; she thought it was too dangerous.
“I actually started flying when I was in 10th grade, I took my first lesson at Nassau Flyers at Republic Airport. I took one lesson every three weeks. My parents thought I would give it up. I had different things in mind, of course. I continued on and actually got my pilot license when I was a freshman in college.
“There’s a lot of training. I went to Dowling College, studying aviation management. I loved it, I was part of the National Intercollegiate Flying Association, kind of like the NCAA for aviation. You compete with other aviation colleges within the region; there about 10 throughout the United States. For two years I was named the top pilot of Region VII.”
It was around 3 in the morning, and those C-130s were coming in from Kabul. You could see the people coming out of the back of the airplane, and just a couple hours before they were in Kabul.
“Becoming a pilot for a commercial airline was my pursuit from day one. Before I even started training, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I had my heart set on flying for the airlines. It’s a long process; those that want to pursue this passion really have to love what they do. Once you start, there’s no looking back.
“It’s challenging; you have to get all these certificates, then you have to build the flight experience. I had almost 3,000 hours of flight experience as a flight instructor. I was director of fight operations at Dowling [College] for about four years after I graduated; they had their own aviation program. I got turned down by the first airline I interviewed at. Then in 2006, I got hired by American Eagle, flying out of LaGuardia and JFK. I was with American Eagle for about 8½ years.
“What I did to make sure I was more competitive than others was that I became an educator. I was an adjunct professor teaching aviation classes at Dowling. Then I got very lucky; I got hired by United Airlines in 2015. I was able to fly Boeing 757 and 767 aircraft, primarily routes to Europe and South America. In 2020, I changed over to fly the Boeing 777; that has allowed me to fly long-haul flights throughout the world, from the Far East to the Middle East, all over Europe. I just got back from Dubai on Tuesday morning.
“One of the highlights of my career so far was with the United Airlines flights to pick up Afghan refugees about two years ago. Because I was from Afghanistan and was able to speak the language, I volunteered to be a translator. It was an incredible journey. I remember we landed in Kuwait. It was around 3 in the morning, and those C-130s were coming in from Kabul. You could see the people coming out of the back of the airplane, and just a couple hours before they were in Kabul. They didn’t have anything with them, maybe a bag.
“I had made that same journey back in the early ’80s with my parents. Not under the same conditions, it was a little bit different, but for me to actually be there was fascinating. I did two of those flights, and then the third flight that I flew myself, we transported troops back from Afghanistan. That was an incredible experience.”
After 9/11, that put a lot of us on the fence to come out and say, this is who we are. We are not what the media portrays or what some crazy person across the road portrays. We have been living here, we are part of the community.
“I’ve been part of the community at the Islamic Center of Long Island for the past 20 years. Until about eight years ago, I was busy with family and trying to pursue my career. As a pilot, we interact with so many people, so many cultures; that’s the best part of the job. You interact with so many different individuals from so many fields, religions; it’s ever-changing.
“When things kind of settled down, I said it would be wonderful if I could give back to the community since I’m now set on my own way. It’s time for me to give back. Around 2015-16, I got more involved with the center. Now I’m ending my three-year term as president of the center.
“Being involved with the community, the interfaith community, our local politicians and leaders, with the county executive’s office, the police commissioner, has just been an incredible opportunity for us to give back individually and as a community. Also, to really represent our faith as Muslims, because after 9/11, that put a lot of us on the fence to come out and say, this is who we are. We are not what the media portrays or what some crazy person across the road portrays. We have been living here, we are part of the community, we are part of the thread. We’re here to be Muslims, but beyond that to participate and be assets to the entire community.
“This is very meaningful; the Islamic Center of Long Island is one of the most active centers in the tri-state area. We have an incredible community that does wonderful work, from the food pantry that we opened about two years ago to funeral services to wedding ceremonies, to Ramadan, which just passed, where we had a full house. The center is exceeding our expectations. It has grown, and it’s wonderful to be part of that community. In my free time, a lot of my dedication goes back to the center.”
Interviewed by Barbara Schuler