A trained sniper and special forces service member from Kabul, Afghanistan, is not who people expect to see standing behind the counter of a grocery store. Even more uncommon is that the store is run by two cousins from Kabul who wound up in different parts of this country before reuniting in Omaha to run an international grocery store.
Muhib Hassan and Niamatullah Habibzai were born in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. They attended the same high school, and signed up to work with the U.S. military as linguists soon after they graduated. Habibzai spoke Dari and Pashto, two of the most commonly spoken languages in Afghanistan. He started working with the U.S. military in 2005. Hassan began working with the U.S. two years later.
“When the U.S. military came in, there was a very urgent need of linguists back then,” Habibzai says.
“If you knew a little bit of English, they would hire you, just to communicate with local people.”
Habibzai worked as a cultural adviser and interpreter between the U.S. military and the Afghan National Army. Hassan worked with U.S. special forces, and helped train the Afghan Local Police, Afghan National Police, and the Afghan Border Police. He also went to villages and communicated with local elders.
Habibzai and Hassan faced threats both implied and physical for working with the U.S. military. Habibzai says he cannot return to the village where their family lived for fear of retaliation by the Taliban.
“Even our relatives were blaming us for bringing Americans to the village,” Hassan says.
Hassan took shrapnel in his hand when he was involved in a firefight in 2012. Sitting next to a white freezer at their grocery store, Subzi Mundi, Hassan rolled up his sleeve and traced a line across his left thumb and index finger where the shrapnel entered. He says he has almost no feeling in his left index finger.
Hassan and Habibzai’s service helped them each obtain a Special Immigration Visa (SIV), which are primarily given to Afghans and Iraqis who have assisted the U.S. military. In 2016, the state department estimated it granted about 20,000 SIVs to Afghans who have assisted the U.S. military (the number also includes family members of those who have helped).
With his SIV secured, Habibzai moved to Fairfax, Virginia, in April 2011. He was still working for the military as a contractor. He then moved to North Dakota because some of his friends in the military were living there. In 2014, Habibzai moved to Omaha.
“I wanted to settle somewhere that I can have a family and raise my kids,” Habibzai says. “I thought Omaha was a good place.”
Subzi Mundi became a go-to grocery store for ingredients common to his cuisine, like goat meat and fresh dates. After repeated trips, he expressed an interest in buying the store outright. However, undertaking all of the responsibilities of running a grocery store is too much for one person. He needed a partner.
Enter his cousin.
Hassan moved to Durham, North Carolina, in 2013. He chose this location because he knew friends in the military who lived there. While in Durham, he worked as a truck driver and a driver coordinator (recruiting other truck drivers). Hassan brought wife Noorya and his daughter (since then, they have had another daughter, 3, and a son, 14 months old).
“It was hard for them,” Hassan says. “When I was at work, they were just sitting at home all the time.”
In his first few months in the United States, his daughter fell ill with a fever and kidney infection. He didn’t even know where to take her.
“I called my friend, he was living two hours away from me,” Hassan says.
His friend drove to his home and gave the family a ride to the hospital. While at the hospital, Hassan said he didn’t even have an insurance card on him.
“I didn’t have anything,” Hassan says.
What he did have was family, and when Habibzai asked for help running a store, Hassan and his family moved to Omaha.
Last year, Hassan agreed to help his cousin in buying Subzi Mundi. Habibzai had saved money he made contracting with the military and used it to secure the business. He and his cousin formed an LLC (AFG Cousins). In October 2016, Hassan and Habibzai became owners of Subzi Mundi.
The two cousins also have a nonbiological family member in Omaha who works with Lutheran Family Services. Lacey Studnicka, director of advancement for community services at LFS, heard about Hassan and Habibzai’s story. LFS provides assistance to SIV holders. Studnicka says LFS, as well as the state department, provides similar services to SIV recipients as refugees. The primary difference is the path to getting a visa is usually much shorter for SIV recipients because of the services they offer to the U.S. military, even though the vetting process is just as intensive, Studnicka says. The actions of linguists like Hassan and Habibzai have saved soldiers lives, something she routinely hears from service members.
“Not only did they serve our country, but now they’re business owners, and giving back to the community,” Studnicka says.
Visit @subzimundi1 on Facebook to learn more about this grocery store.
This article was printed in the February/March 2018 edition of B2B.