For some, a warm cup of coffee is the best part about getting up in the morning. Yet we often don’t think about the people who made the coffee for us. We usually think of them as nameless baristas just doing their jobs and forget their faces soon after meeting them.
But sometimes, it’s worth talking to service industry workers and really getting to know them. Many baristas have lived rather interesting lives and have quite a few stories to tell.
Take for example the workers at Black Rifle Coffee Company in Salt Lake City—who have all risked their lives in combat.
When he was deployed in Afghanistan, Jeff Kirkham met Mohammad Tasleem, who soon became a close ally.
Jeff Kirkham fought in the U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan against the Taliban, but he wasn’t fighting alone. He soon met Mohammad “Wali” Tasleem, an Afghan commando who fought by his side.
Through the midnight raids and firefights, the pair grew close—and it was a good thing, because their survival depended on it.
Their friendship was great while it lasted. In 2013, after over a decade fighting in Afghanistan, Kirkham retired from the military and returned home. The two were forced to part ways … at least for the time being.
Back in the states, Kirkham’s friend and colleague, Evan Hafer, got an amazing idea: He wanted to start a coffee shop run entirely by veterans. He got Kirkham on board as a staff member, and they soon started serving to the public.
With business booming, Kirkham was happy as could be. However, things were more challenging for Tasleem.
After the war, Tasleem immigrated to America but had trouble staying afloat.
Once Kirkham moved away, Tasleem tried spending more time with his family, but that was easier said than done. During his 13-year fight with the Taliban, he had made a lot of enemies, and these enemies were dedicated to destroying his way of life.
They killed his uncle, attempted to kill his brother, and threatened to kidnap his family. Tasleem knew that if he wanted to protect his wife and five kids, he would need to move away from Afghanistan and take refuge in another country.
In 2013, he moved to the state of Virginia. He was now away from the Taliban, but still faced his fair share of difficulties. He had to work low-income jobs that barely fed his family, and his neighbors were often not neighborly.
“I was feeling happy. We would have a happy future and my kids would go to good schools,” he told The Salt Lake Tribune. “But in public housing [in Virginia], my neighbors were not nice to us. And they wouldn’t let their kids play with our kids.”
For two and a half years, Tasleem kept up this frustrating lifestyle—but eventually, he and his wife decided that enough was enough. They were about ready to high-tail it back to Afghanistan, when Tasleem saw Kirkham in a livestream on Facebook.
“I looked at my wife and said, ‘I know that guy,’” Tasleem said. “He is my friend from Afghanistan.”
Tasleem reached out to Kirkham, who was shocked to hear Tasleem was still alive.
Tasleem decided to send his friend a message. Kirkham was shocked to say the least, as he had heard that Tasleem was killed in an ambush years prior.
“We were super excited he was alive,” Hafer told The Salt Lake Tribune. “And in the United States.”
Learning of Tasleem’s situation, Kirkham and Hafer envisioned a better future for him at Black Rifle.
“Can we hire him? Can we bring him out?” Hafer recalled saying. “Let’s offer him a job and get him out here.”
So they did. Tasleem moved to Utah where Kirkham and Hafer set him up with a job and a place to live. It was much better than his old neighborhood.
“We are welcome in our Lehi neighborhood,” Tasleem said. “The neighborhood kids are nice to my kids.”
Now Tasleem works at Kirkham’s shop alongside six other former Afghan fighters.
Tasleem’s inclusion as a staff member paved the way for six other former Afghan fighters to join the staff at Black Rifle. Soon those fighters became like family.
“We very much relied on these guys,” Kirkham said.
Kirkham felt like he owed these fighters for helping out during the war. Much of this attitude came from his father, a Vietnam veteran.
“The only thing that bothered him was all the people we left behind,” he said.
Back then, there was nothing he could do—but now that Black Rifle had the means to assist former allies, they wanted to make sure they helped out as many of them as possible.
“The trust and brotherhood you develop with them, you can’t forget it. It’s with you all the time,” Hafer said. “You have to take care of the people who took care of you.”
Now that Tasleem is living in the neighborhood, his friendship with Kirkham is back in full force. They get together for dinners, and their children play side by side.
“His boys get together with my boys, and it’s like the Manhattan Project of energy,” Kirkham said.
Kirkham and Tasleem’s story is so heartwarming, it’s almost just like having a great cup of coffee!