For the seventh and probably final time, the Jensens celebrated Christmas in Kabul.
This would be Kabul as in Afghanistan, a place where just days ago a suicide bomber killed three coalition forces members and wounded six Afghans.
In addition to a war that seems to trudge on, it's a place of other hardships: where people burn trash to keep warm, roads are bad, the air you breathe is worse, and if your child breaks an ankle, you're better off getting treatment in another country.
As a woman, Erin Jensen can't really venture outside her compound alone without her husband, Ken. Their four kids — Jaden, almost 12; Jett, 9; Ava, 7; and Aleah, 4 — live mostly indoors in the winter, inside a compound with big steel doors and armed guards.
But Kabul, home to some 3.3 million people, is also a place of beauty, warmth and the shared goals of a better Afghanistan.
The Jensens are not diplomats or contractors or members of the U.S. military. They are an Omaha couple answering a call to serve others, even in a place you might not think of going, let alone bringing your four young children to live. For seven years.
Ken is principal of a U.S.-accredited, English-speaking school in Afghanistan, the International School of Kabul. Erin, a nurse by training, is a fundraiser for the school and teaches dance.
They live and work at the International School of Kabul compound. The school occupies one building. The Jensen family lives on the second floor of a nearby house. They have a kitchen, living room, dining room and three bedrooms.
They spend a lot of time inside this house and a lot of time inside this compound. This time of year, when the weather is cold and kerosene for heat is expensive, people burn whatever they can. This makes what can feel like a claustrophobic experience seem even more so.
“It wraps a toxic blanket over the city,” Ken said. “It's like smoking two packs a day, for us. It just wipes out your body. It ages you really fast. If you look at weather.com, sometimes the weather will be 'smoke.' ”
The pollution is one small reason why the Jensens plan to leave in June. Other reasons include the wind-down of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan in 2014 and a general feeling that it's time to move on.
Ken and Erin are Millard North graduates who were shaped by early international experiences. Ken took a year off in college to live and teach in Pakistan. Erin spent time in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India, living in one of Mother Teresa's homes for the dying.
Six months after they were married, the couple went to Pakistan. Ken taught English at a boys school, and Erin taught English to female refugees from Afghanistan.
They returned to Omaha, where Ken finished his teaching degree at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Erin graduated from Nebraska Methodist College of Nursing and worked at Methodist Hospital.
They come from homes where it was important to serve others.
When they learned about the International School of Kabul, an English-language college prep school serving Afghans and the children of foreigners, they jumped at the chance to go. Their families were supportive — so supportive that Erin's mother and stepfather, Debbie and Ken Esser of Omaha, moved to Kabul, too. The Essers run a guest house in another compound. They, too, will leave Kabul next year.
Ken Jensen's parents, Alice Buffett Outstanding Teacher Award winner Paul and wife Dorothy “Dot,” have visited. Friends from Omaha have visited. Supporters have sent money and supplies, including a dance floor, to their school. The International School of Kabul will need all the help it can get as its U.S. government aid is drying up.
But others have not been supportive and have openly criticized the Jensens for taking their children there. Contractors have scolded Ken and Erin on airplanes to Kabul.
Ken, 37, says this: The family has had zero problems in seven years. The kids are safe. He and Erin, 34, feel safe. They don't take unnecessary risks in Kabul. They leave during the monthlong Christmas break and the long summer break to travel somewhere less restrictive. (They should be in Thailand now.) They have lots of Afghan friends and have visited President Hamid Karzai, who has relatives attending their school.
Ken believes the biggest hazard his family faces is the air pollution. He also thinks that it's dangerous everywhere.
“Wasn't there another shooting in Colorado?” Ken asks, referencing the Dec. 13 shooting at suburban Denver's Arapahoe High School. “The safety we think exists is actually an illusion. I think we're safer in Kabul than in a lot of cities, depending on where you live.”
Ken said this experience is giving his children important lessons in travel, world view, social justice and putting others first.
“They're seeing their parents give up comfort for a life of what I would call destiny, where we are living what we are created to do,” he said. “That puts the element of destiny in their lives.”
This does not mean Ken and Erin are willing to sacrifice health for destiny. When Erin was pregnant with Aleah, they returned to the United States so she could give birth in Omaha. They returned to Kabul when Aleah was 4 weeks old.
When Ava climbed up the wall and fell about 10 feet, cracking her ankle, the Jensens took her first to a local emergency room, which sent Ava home with an ankle wrapped in what Ken called “an Ace bandage on steroids.”
Worried she didn't get proper treatment, they took her all the way to Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.
The Jensens are ardent Christians living in a Muslim country and working at a non-religious school. Ken says his faith buoys him, but he doesn't proselytize.
“Our deal with the (Afghan) government is 'religious-free,' ” he says.
The school has 370 students in preschool through 12th grade. The Jensen children attend there. Some 40 teachers, most of them American, work there. A number of teachers have said they'll be back in the fall.
The Jensens strive to keep daily life in Kabul about as normal as it might be in Omaha. They have a trampoline and rose bush in the yard. They watch movies on TV. They host dinner parties, and the kids have sleepovers with friends.
And when Christmas rolls around, Santa finds them in Kabul. They put up a tree. They cook a turkey.
When I spoke with Ken on Friday, his in-laws were over, “Downton Abbey” was on TV, the boys were playing with their Xbox and he was trying to figure out how to make margaritas without ice.
Margaritas? Ken said alcohol is restricted, but you are allowed to bring a small amount into the country. He said the single bottle of wine they had with Christmas dinner and this tequila were rare treats.
Jensen is looking forward to the family's next landing spot. He has applied for positions all over the globe. His sister lives and works in Cape Town, South Africa.
Jensen has hope for Kabul and for Afghanistan. This hope resides in the Afghans he has met, particularly in the children at International School of Kabul.
Some of these students, he predicts, will “be part of a brave new generation in Afghanistan that will change everything.”
“The foreigners will not change everything,” Jensen says, “this young generation will.”