Abdul Saboor, an award-winning Afghan photographer in France, documents a soccer game at a refugee encampment in Calaís, France.

This Afghan photographer captures life in Calaís migrant encampments

Abdul Saboor is an award-winning professional photographer who has traveled across Europe capturing the struggles that migrants endure along the way — from police violence to homelessness and other kinds of mistreatment. 

The World

Abdul Saboor, an award-winning Afghan photographer in France, documents a soccer game at a refugee encampment in Calaís, France. 

Rebecca Rosman/The World

When Abdul Saboor steps off the train in Calaís, France, the 28-year-old Afghan gets to work immediately. A group of eight Afghan boys approaches him, asking for advice about getting to the United Kingdom. Some are as young as 13 years old.

“There’s no good advice. … I don’t know what to say,” Saboor admitted. 

Saboor volunteers his time directing migrants to what’s known as the new “Calaís jungle,” a field converted into an outdoor shelter and food distribution point for hundreds of migrants living in or near the northern city of Calaís.

Related: Afghan migrants remain stranded at Poland-Belarus border

“I know their story. I know why they're here and I know how difficult it is to be an immigrant and have to leave your family."

Abdul Saboor, Afghan photographer and volunteer, Calaís, France

“I know their story. I know why they're here and I know how difficult it is to be an immigrant and have to leave your family,” Saboor said. 

Seven years ago, Saboor took a similar journey. 

While working as a translator for NATO in Kabul, he started getting threats from the Taliban, forcing him to flee his country and begin an arduous journey toward Europe, with the help of smugglers. 

“It took two years and a lot of time. … We had to go through the forest … mountains,” Saboor recalled. 

Related: EU's top migration official calls for global response to help Afghans 

A turning point came for him while living in a refugee camp in Serbia when a volunteer gave Saboor an old, digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera after learning he was interested in photography. 

From there, Saboor started documenting life in the camps and later documented the rest of his journey to France, where he received asylum in 2018. 

Related: Roma flee Romania for US-Mexico border to escape persecution

Today, Saboor is an award-winning professional photographer who has traveled across Europe capturing the struggles that migrants endure along the way — from police violence to homelessness and other kinds of mistreatment.

“It's very important to document to show to the world it's not fair or it's not OK and how we've been treated,” Saboor said. “I think many people [were] not knowing, like, what's happening.”

Now, he splits his time between photography and volunteering in Calaís. 

Related: Turkey's Lake Van: A dangerous crossroads on the migrant trail

He starts his afternoon at an old warehouse where several local, nongovernmental organizations have set up shop. The groups work with migrants to provide meals, clothes, blankets and other kinds of support.

Pierre Roques, a coordinator with the local NGO l’Auberge des Migrants, said Saboor’s empathy and shared experience has proved invaluable when it comes to working with migrants in the field.

“They feel confident when they talk to [Abdul]. It makes things easier for everyone.”

Pierre Roques, coordinator, l'Auberge des Migrants, Calaís, France

“They feel confident when they talk to him,” Roques said. “It makes things easier for everyone.”

In the afternoon, Saboor headed to the Calaís jungle to check on the boys he met in the morning. 

He found them tucked away in the woods on a leafy patch of grass they planned to call home for the next few days. They were making TikTok videos, showing off their new digs, but later they confided to Saboor that they didn’t have any blankets or tents.

So he puts in some calls. It’s very personal to him.

“My brother is the same age and my niece and nephew ... they’re all trying to flee Afghanistan too,” he said. “I know why these boys are here. I wish I could do something more for them. I can never do enough, but I’m trying to do the best I can.”

By the end of the day, Saboor said he was exhausted. But it wasn't over yet.

He saw another group of teens engrossed in a soccer match and whipped out his camera to document it.

He wants to capture little moments of respite like these in his photography.

“It's a very powerful and strong ... short way to explain the situation,” Saboor said in between camera clicks. 

To show there’s still some hope amid all the chaos and sadness.