It’s picture time at the birthday party.
The bowls of chickpea stew and sabzi, lamb korma and naan have disappeared, and the small apartment – 7,000 miles from Afghanistan and the Taliban – is crowded with happiness.
Basir Mohmand and his wife, their daughters and their husbands and kids. Dave Wilson and his husband. Dave’s sisters and their mates. Old friends from Dave’s years in higher education, visiting from Oregon.
Little boys playing with Spider-Man. Grownups talking of books and weather and Basir’s first Husker hoops game and the fragrant feast cooked by his youngest daughter.
Fariha Mohmand grew up with her father’s stories of this good-hearted, trustworthy American. She remembers her grandmother telling her: You have another uncle. Uncle Daoud – the Afghan name for David.
In 2021, Uncle Dave secured her family safe passage from Afghanistan. He did the same for her sister, who arrived in Lincoln six months ago.
Fariha sets her dessert – rich pistachio and cardamom pudding – on the coffee table, alongside chocolate cake from Hy-Vee. Two countries speaking the universal language of sugar.
Then the phones are out. Basir snaps his fingers, coaxing his grandchildren to look. Look!
Dave steadies his phone; the 4-year-old who calls him grandfather — Nika Baba — balanced between his knees.
This is the last night the brothers will be together: Basir, 72, a Muslim born in Kandahar. Wilson, 68, a Catholic boy who set off to make a difference in the Peace Corps and found a second family.
Theirs is a story of enduring loyalty and love, of a coup and torture, of war and longing, of unanswered letters, fear, hope.
A story that has come full circle, Dave says.
“An Afghan tale with a happy ending.”
Dave Wilson appeared at the boys’ high school in Kandahar in the fall of 1977, a lanky, fair-haired college graduate from small-town Iowa.
“I still remember the day this tall, handsome American walked in the room,” Basir says. The Afghan shook the American’s hand. Salaam alaikum, he told him. Peace be upon you.
Far from home, stepping into a new world, the Peace Corps volunteer was lonely.
One day in the teachers’ room, he looked down the row of chairs, studying each face and stopping at one, a science teacher with thick black hair and a drooping mustache. A good teacher who loved to laugh and play basketball, like he did.
“Basir was very kind to me,” Dave remembers. “He was very patient with my Farsi. It was clear his students liked and respected him.”
And: “I wanted a friend.”
He began to play basketball with Basir and his students; a crowd ringing the court to watch the 6-foot-4 American shoot.
He knew Basir’s schedule. He began to loiter after his own school day ended, and when he saw Basir hop on his bicycle to head home, he pedaled close and asked if they might ride together.
On the way, Dave peppered him with questions. What is this building? What about that one?
He asked about the movie theater, hoping to wrangle an invitation. As they rode the dusty neighborhood streets, past camels and donkeys and men and boys on bikes, he invited Basir to his apartment for a meal. His Afghan friend returned the courtesy.
“My Machiavellian plan,” Dave laughs. “It worked.”
In those first weeks, Dave met only the male members of Basir’s large Muslim family, as was normal for acquaintances and even friends in Kandahar. But that changed as his father grew in trust and fondness for the American.
He called his family together: As Basir is my son, Daoud is also my son and no one should cover her face from Daoud.
That was the start of many nights at Basir’s family home. Cards and meals and games of chess, sitting on cushions at a low table; huddled closer in winter to stay warm.
Dave’s mother had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer his freshman year of college and was gone by the time he was a sophomore. Now Basir’s mother stepped into the gap. She fed him, challenged him, made him laugh. She mended his clothes and made him new ones.
“She mothered me. She absolutely treated me like one of her own.”
By 1978, Basir had married Basira Saai and moved to a town southwest of Kandahar; but the teachers remained close.
That spring, one of Basir’s students knocked on the door while Dave was visiting. Turn on the radio, he said. When they did, the sound of military music filled the room and they knew there had been a coup. Communists had taken control of the country.
A month later, a dozen men came to Basir’s home searching for evidence he was spying for the Americans.
Do you know Mr. Dave Wilson?
Is he your friend?
No, he is my brother.
They threw Basir in jail. They slapped his face. Put clamps on his fingers and feet and squeezed until he screamed.
Why do you talk about the United States in your classroom? Why do many students come to your home?
Confess, they said. Confess the American is giving you money to spy.
“If they killed me, I was proud,” Basir says now.
Many Afghans were killed during the Saur Revolution, taken from their homes never to return. But they let Basir go.
The brothers continued to see each other under cover of night. Dave was arrested, as well, but was freed with the help of the U.S. Embassy and told to get home.
In the middle of December, in the middle of the day in 1978, Basir risked danger to tell Dave goodbye.
But he warned his American brother not to write. If you write, they could kill us.
Dave Wilson – Daoud – went home and waited.
A year passed.
And then another. And one more.
Dave was living and teaching in Iowa when the letter arrived, Basir’s familiar writing on the envelope.
His Afghan brother had survived and he had a question: How are you?
“I was afraid to answer. What if it was a trap? I didn’t want to get him killed.”
But when the second letter came a month later, he braved a reply. He mailed it. He never heard back.
Dave landed in Iowa City for grad school and met David Smith, a fellow teacher. They fell in love and in 1988 they settled in Lincoln and a good life, but there was a shadow.
The American press had grown weary of Afghanistan. Dave found himself in Christian Science Reading Rooms, scouring newspapers for news of his adopted country, his former students, his family.
And there was no word from Basir – not a hint of news – as the calendar flipped through the 1980s and the Soviet invasion turned into a grinding war.
In Afghanistan, Basir had never received the letter that his American brother had sent.
He and Basira lost a child, their first daughter. Then their family grew: two more daughters and two sons. Basira was teaching girls – often secretly in a home school – and Basir had a good job with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.
And then, one day in 1990, a letter arrived in Dave’s mailbox: I’m safe, Basir wrote.
A new chapter began.
Phone calls and letters and email. A reunion in Germany in 2003. Young teachers had become middle-aged men.
“Happy tears did not allow me to speak for many minutes,” Basir says.
“We took up right where we left off,” Dave says.
At the hotel they talked late into the night and all the next day. They traveled the city.
In 2007, they met in Kabul, a chance to exorcise the ghosts of the past.
Basir’s youngest son came to Texas as an exchange student. Dave brought him to Lincoln to visit the university and he stayed. When he graduated in 2013 – and settled in Omaha – Basir and Basira were there to celebrate.
And then, the United States announced it was leaving Afghanistan. As the remaining troops exited in 2021, the Taliban quickly returned to power – and quickly, Basir’s youngest daughter and her family decided they needed to flee.
Uncle Dave called in favors. He helped them find a spot on a flight out. They took off one day before a bomb exploded at the Kabul airport, killing 13 U.S. service members and more than 160 Afghans.
When Fariha landed in America she hugged him for the first time – this uncle that her father and grandma had talked so much about: “I had feeling my dad was there.”
Uncle Dave did the same for her older sister, helping to secure visas and opening his home while Khatera and her family got their legs under them. He helped them find apartments a few minutes away.
“We want to live next to him for our whole lives,” Khatera says. “He is a grandfather to my kids, he is thinking what they need before I am.”
It’s what family does, Dave says.
“Basir and his family went to the wall for me and never once did they falter.”
All those years ago, he thought his adoption into the Mohmand family was a metaphor. He was like a brother. He was like a son.
That changed when Basir risked his life for him and it was cemented years later when Dave learned Basir’s mother told everyone she had four sons. Her son Basir. Her son Jalil. Her son Baqi. Her son Daoud, his photo there on the wall alongside his brothers to prove it.
A few days before the birthday party, the brothers tell their story.
They are sitting in the living room of Dave and David’s spacious bungalow. Basir’s thick dark hair has thinned and gone white. Dave is no longer the lanky basketball player towering over his opponents on a Kandahar court.
They’ve settled into retirement.
Basir and Basira will fly home soon. After raising four children in a country that suffered a Soviet invasion, decades of civil war, the Taliban, an American-led occupation and the return of the Taliban, they now live with their other son in Germany.
Lincoln is their second home; a place where their 9-year-old granddaughter is free to go to school, play soccer, learn the violin.
As they talk, David sets the long dining room table. He’s cooking meatloaf and sweet corn and mashed potatoes for Dave’s Aunt Jo’s 88th birthday. Dave’s sisters will be there. Basir and Basira and their daughters, too, to share in the all-American meal.
They often share a meal. When Khatera and Fariha cook, the Afghan food brings back memories.
Uncle Dave teases them when they ask how he likes it: Maybe you need more practice.
An inside family joke.
And they are a family. Uncle David takes Khatera’s older children to school. Both uncles take care of Fariha’s little boys when their day care is closed. Dave’s sisters – the aunties – help with driving lessons and nursing advice and navigating the financial world. Along the way, friends and former students and strangers stepped up with donations and helping hands, renewing their faith in humanity and community.
Over the years, Dave Wilson collected many mementos of his time in Afghanistan. Carvings and carpets and old coins and countless books. He treasures them.
But he has something better than all of that, he says.
“I got a whole damn family.”
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