They will roast a turkey inside their little Millard apartment, the place that every day feels a little more like home. Fraidoon knows this because he special-ordered the bird from the Afghan grocer.
The rest of Thursday’s menu is up in the air. Maybe Homa will try her luck with some traditional Thanksgiving side dishes. Maybe the guests will lug in platters of traditional Afghan food.
Probably both, says Fraidoon “Fred” Akhtari. Probably all of the above.
“I have to thank God for everything He has done for me,” says Fraidoon. “Me and my family and my kids have made new friends. We have met good people. We are safe. That’s why I need to celebrate Thanksgiving.”
Every year, I write a Thanksgiving week column focused on the things I’m grateful for in Omaha. Every year, I think about how it would be easier if I just ... didn’t.
Then I run into a story like the one I’m about to tell you — the story of the Akhtari family’s first Thanksgiving — and it reminds me why this sort of column is important to me. Why I think it needs to be written.
I first wrote about Fraidoon and Homa and their two kids when they arrived here fresh off a plane from Kabul this summer.
For almost the entirety of the American war in Afghanistan, Fraidoon was a beloved interpreter who fought alongside U.S. troops battling the Taliban and other insurgents. A collection of U.S. military veterans, lawyers, local charity workers and big-hearted volunteers fought to get Fraidoon and his family out of danger. They battled for years against government bureaucracy and congressional inaction. Then they fought the fear created by the Trump administration’s first try at a travel ban, which made the Akhtaris and many others believe that they weren’t welcome here.
In July, this ragtag crew overcame all that. They succeeded in getting an Afghan family to the relative safety of a strange new city in this strange new land. Omaha.
“They were helped by a Jewish lawyer, and a Christian organization run by a Muslim lady, and a bunch of other churches,” said Dave Lemoine, a retired FBI agent who led the effort. “All these people, all these religions, came together and said ‘Let’s do what’s right.’ ”
The kindness kept appearing in the strangest places, like my email inbox.
A day after my original column ran, a man named Piyush Gupta wrote me, wondering if I could connect him to Fraidoon. I want to offer him a job, he said.
And sure enough, when I located Fraidoon this week, he was on a service call for Titan Custom Cabinets, the La Vista company Gupta manages. He’s been full-time there for three months now. According to both boss and employee, it’s going swimmingly.
I called Piyush and asked why he felt the need to reach out to Fraidoon, a man with years of experience fighting a war but zero experience building custom cabinets.
Piyush told me a story about what happened after he moved to Omaha from India in 1998. He was 16 then, and his parents enrolled him at Papillion-La Vista High School. He spoke English with a thick accent. He felt like an alien. During lunch, he would ask a teacher to let him stay in the classroom and study, because he couldn’t bear the thought of another day sitting in the cafeteria alone.
“The first six months were terrible,” he said. “I was invisible.”
Then, one day, a popular student heard Piyush listening to Indian music. The popular student was an Air Force brat, and had lived in Bahrain when his father was stationed there. He liked Indian music.
The popular student befriended Piyush. Treated him with kindness. Started introducing him to his friends. And soon enough, Piyush Gupta didn’t feel invisible.
“I never forgot that,” he told me. “And when I read your column ... it kind of brought back that feeling. I couldn’t help myself. It felt like the right thing to do, to give Fraidoon a chance.”
Piyush hired Fraidoon as a service tech and matched him with an experienced service tech named Dan Mixan from Plattsmouth.
The Nebraskan and the Afghan refugee hit it off almost immediately. They spend nearly every day together in a work truck, driving to and from appointments.
Dan has taught Fraidoon how to adjust an adjustable cabinet shelf, how to use a GPS, how to navigate both the streets and the culture of this place Fraidoon always calls “Omaha City.”
Fraidoon has taught Dan about Afghanistan and the history of the conflicts there. Sometimes when it’s slow in the truck, they speak of the similarities and differences between Christianity and Islam.
Starting early next year, Fraidoon will likely go on service calls by himself. That will happen because Fraidoon works hard, listens well and learns quickly, Piyush says.
But it will also happen only because Piyush gave him a shot. And only because Dan showed him the ropes.
“One of the things I love about Omaha City is that the people here are so nice, so friendly,” Fraidoon told me. “Most people don’t care ... where you are from. They want to help.”
On this Thanksgiving week, I think it’s worth calling out the people who do help.
Dan and Piyush. The retired FBI agent Dave Lemoine and Lacey Studnicka from Lutheran Family Services. A Washington, D.C., immigration lawyer named Sari Long, whom Lemoine nicknamed “The Pit Bull.”
Shane and Krynn Pekny, and their boys Max and Mason, members at Bennington’s St. John’s Lutheran Church who have taken on the unpaid and unsung role of sponsors to the Akhtari family. (In a particularly “Omaha is a small town” twist, I’m longtime friends with Shane.) The Peknys help the Akhtaris navigate appointments, paperwork, all the bewildering new-country stuff. Max and Mason and the Akhtari kids, Fardin and Leema, have become fast friends, happily playing together even before they could speak the same language.
This Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to each one of you. So is Fraidoon. He told me this week that his family is doing well. The kids are in kindergarten and second grade. Homa is taking English classes through a local program. There are struggles with the new language and unfamiliar culture, but mostly, he says, they feel blessed.
How blessed? The Akhtaris actually have two separate invitations to Thanksgiving dinner. The Peknys invited them over. So did some local students. But they are going to politely decline both, Fraidoon said, because he and Homa have another idea in mind.
That’s why, this Thursday, a few Afghan-American families will knock on the front door of a small Millard apartment. There may be mashed potatoes. There may be kabuli palaw with naan. There may be both, but it won’t really matter because there will definitely be laughter.
Good luck with that turkey, Fraidoon and Homa Akhtari. Best of luck hosting your first Thanksgiving in a place that, every day, feels a little more like home.