Three months ago, Zabiullah R., who served as match translator for the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan, did not know what would happen to him and his family after the withdrawal of the US military.
Zabiullah, affectionately known by troops as Johnny, was able to escape Kabul in August with the help of a U.S. senator, a private veterans group and members of the 82nd Airborne. Johnny arrived with his family at his new home in North Carolina back in October.
Today, his young daughters are already getting something they would never have received under the Taliban: an education.
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“They’re happy and they’m excited,” Johnny said. “Every morning … at 6 in the morning, my two daughters, they wake up and get ready … just come into my room and wake us up.”
Johnny says the girls even ask to come along for the weekend.
“I say to those who ‘two days off, you have to stay home,'” Johnny said. “They keep asking, ‘We want to go to school, we like school. We have friends at school. We want to play with them. We want to meet them.'”
His daughters have been welcomed to their new school in Weddington, North Carolina, and embraced by the local community where many of the soldiers Johnny once served with now live.
Students and families at Rea View Elementary School waited in anticipation for Johnny, his wife and his three girls with handmade signs and greetings written on dari.
“The moment they pulled up, it became so quiet that you could hear a pin drop. And the girls got out of the car and they went up, and of course they smiled and beamed ear to ear.” told Jennifer Parker, principal at Rea View Elementary School. “And my families and kids just waved and said hello in their native language.”
They play football on the same team as the daughters of Sgt. Mike Verardo and his wife, Sarah.
Johnny served as a translator for Verardo, who lost his leg in Afghanistan’s Arghandab Valley in 2010 and suffered a traumatic brain injury. Mike has undergone more than 100 operations with Walter Reed after serving with the 508th Infantry Regiment, an airborne infantry regiment of the U.S. Army, first formed in October 1942 during World War II. Both Mike and Johnny each have three daughters.
Now they are neighbors and their daughters are best friends.
“Seeing our six girls play together, six little girls whose fathers served together, shoulder to shoulder in Afghanistan, has healed all our hearts a little bit more every day,” said Sarah Verardo, Mike’s wife and CEO of The Independence Fund and co-founder of Save our Allies. “These children are an example to everyone about what it means to love all people.”
Their girls went trick-or-treating for the first time and now have play appointments after school.
“It was actually the first Halloween in the US. They were so excited,” Johnny said. “They went to the Halloween party and house-to-house to meet other children and families.”
Muzhdah, 7, and Muzhgan, 5, did not speak a word of English when they arrived at the school.
“Google Translate does not have Dari on it, so it has been an experience with it. So a lot of hand gestures, pictures. I feel like we play a game of charades every day. But it’s small things to make them understand. And now they are beginning to understand, “Parker said. “Last week, Muzhdah actually said a whole sentence in English.”
Her first sentence?
“‘I like pizza.]Yes, Muzhdah loves pizza,” Parker recalled.
Parker says Muzhdah and Muzhgan do not take anything for granted.
“Sometimes kids are like, ‘Oh, I’m not feeling well, I do not want to go to school.’ And for them, it’s such a privilege. And then coming to school every day and learning, especially as a girl, they are just so excited and are little mushrooms, “Parker said. “We talk a lot about gratitude and especially this time of year. This really exemplifies how grateful that family is.”
Johnny says his daughters embrace their newfound freedoms.
“And hijab … [Muzhdah] said I will not do that. I want to be more free. I’m going to live in freedom, ”Johnny said.
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This Thanksgiving Afghan family has brought so much joy to this North Carolina community that opened their hearts and helped them start their new life in America.
“I’m grateful to be safe here,” Johnny said. “I’m grateful for this first Thanksgiving, I’m here with my family.”