Three months ago, Zabiullah R., who served as a combat translator for the 82nd Airborne in Afghanistan, did not know what would happen to him and his family after the U.S. military withdrawal.
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 North Carolina home back in October.
Today, his young daughters are already getting something they never would have received under the Taliban: an education.
"They’re happy and they’re excited," said Johnny. "Every morning … 6 o'clock in the morning, my two daughters, they wake up and get ready … just come into my room and wake up us."
Johnny says the girls even ask to go on weekends.
"I tell them, like 'two days off, you have to stay home'," said Johnny. "They keep asking, 'We want to go to school, we like school. We have friends back school. We want to play with them. We want to meet them.'"
His daughters have been welcomed at their new school in Weddington, North Carolina, and embraced by the community, where many of the soldiers Johnny once served alongside now live.
Students and families at Rea View Elementary school waited in anticipation for Johnny, his wife, and his three girls with hand-made signs and greetings written in Dari.
"The moment they pulled up, it got to be so quiet like you could hear a pin drop. And the girls get out of the car, and they walked up, and, of course, they were smiling, beaming ear to ear," recounted Jennifer Parker, principal at Rea View Elementary School. "And my families and kids just were waving and saying hello in their native language."
They play soccer 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 surgeries at Walter Reed after serving with the 508th Infantry Regiment, an airborne infantry regiment of the United States 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 dads served together, shoulder-to-shoulder in Afghanistan, has healed all of our hearts a little bit more each 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 all about what it means to love all people."
Their girls went trick-or-treating for the first time and now have play dates after school.
"That was actually the first Halloween in the United States. They were so excited," said Johnny. "They went to the Halloween party and house-to-house to meet other kids and families."
Muzhdah, 7, and Muzhgan, 5, did not speak a word of English when they arrived at school.
"Google Translate doesn't have Dari on it, so it's been an experience with that. So, a lot of hand gestures, pictures. I feel like we're playing a game of charades on a daily basis. But it's little things to get them to understand. And now they've started to understand," said Parker. "Last week, Muzhdah actually said a full sentence in English."
Her first sentence?
"'I like pizza. Yes, Muzhdah loves pizza," recalled Parker.
Parker says Muzhdah and Muzhgan take nothing for granted.
"Sometimes kids are like, ‘Oh, I don't feel good, I don't want to go to school.’ And to them, it's such a privilege. And so, getting to come into school every day and learn, especially as a girl, they are just so excited and are little sponges," said Parker. "We talk a lot about gratitude and especially this time of year. This truly exemplifies how grateful that family is."
Johnny says his daughters are embracing their newfound freedoms.
"A hijab … [Muzhdah] said, I'm not going to do that. I want to be more free. I'm going to live in freedom," said Johnny.
This Thanksgiving one Afghan family has brought so much joy to this North Carolina community who opened their hearts and helped them start their new life in America.
"I'm grateful to be safe here," said Johnny. "I'm grateful for this first Thanksgiving I'm here with my family."