Denison gave out it's rare “Moving Forward, Giving Back” award this week to Ibrahim Jahja — better known in the community as “Papa Nick” — after being a part of the Denison community for the last 15 years.
Ibrahim Jahja was surprised to receive the award Monday's City Council meeting.
“It was wonderful,” daughter Yildiz Jahja said in a phone interview Tuesday. “He had no clue that the mayor was going to say that about him. She asked me stuff about him, and we told him we were going over there to speak about the fire. It was good because he had no clue it was coming.”
Ibrahim Jahja came to American in 1969 as a 24-year-old immigrant. He started out working as a dishwasher before he decided he wanted to make the restaurant business his career. From there, he learned how to cook and opened his first restaurant in 1972.
Early on, he made giving back a priority. He offered his first free Thanksgiving dinner at one of his restaurants in 1975 and has made it a point to provide the meal every year since.
He made his way to Denison in 2003 and purchased his first restaurant in the area, Nick's Family Restaurant. Since then, he has opened Papa Nicks and has donated countless meals to members of the community ranging from first responders following major events to anyone wishing to enjoy a hot Thanksgiving meal.
“Fifteen years later, the tradition of providing Thanksgiving dinner to any who needs it is well known in our community,” Denison Mayor Janet Gott said. “The act of kindness comes from a grateful heart. If you are alone and you need a family, if you are down on your luck, or if you just want to set at his Thanksgiving table, you are welcome. Just in case you think this began here in Denison, his first free Thanksgiving dinner began in 1975. That's 44 years of giving back.”
Gott said Ibrahim Jahja is no stranger to the first responders either. Whether he is preparing a meal to remember 9/11 or showing up with food following a fire, he is always there.
“In this season of giving, it is appropriate we recognize one of our citizens who gives back without thinking because he has a heart that overflows with gratitude,” Gott said.
Yildiz Jahja said her father was trying not to cry following the announcement. She said growing up she never understood the extent of his generosity. She just knew he was never home for Thanksgiving. One year, he took her to the restaurant to meet his other family: the people who he fed. She said that is when it sunk in.
“It means so much to us,” Yildiz Jahja said. “Just being there I saw how the mayor was talking and every one clapping. It was an awesome experience. For us to see that, it means a lot. We love this community and we will do anything for it. I was in Chicago for along time and I have never seen anything like this place. I am so glad I moved here. He has such a giving heart. He is a kind, giving man. He would give you the shirt off his back. He taught us kids to be just like him.”
Gott said his love for others comes from his love of America.
“I have had the opportunity to sit down and talk to him and watch him glow with pride as he speaks of becoming a citizen of our great nation in 1974,” Gott said. “He will be the first to tell you, those of us who were lucky enough to be born in the United States that we do not appreciate the our citizenship as we should. Everything he does for others comes from a grateful heart. He gives to invest in our community because he wants to give back some of the blessings this country has given him. Giving is part of who he is. He ensure he instilled his love of giving to his three children.”
Denison City Manager Jud Rex said Ibrahim Jahja exemplifies the team Denison approach.
“Thinking about community first and self second,” Rex said. “All that he does not just feeding those who need food but he shows up to things like the Main Street fire and helps first responders with food. Just lots of things. He is a community guy and certainly the kind of citizen we want more of in Denison.”
Gott said there wasn't anyone in the community more deserving of the award.
“If I told you tonight our recipient is Ibrahim Jahja most of you in the community wouldn't even know who I am talking about,” Gott said. “But if I say Papa Nick then you know exactly who I am talking about. Nick, our community is better because you are part of it. We are honored to present you tonight with this Moving Forward, Giving Back award. Nick, you are a blessing to our community.”
Yildiz Jahja said Papa Nicks will be offering a free Christmas Dinner this year on Dec. 23. She said her dad is all about giving back and she was very excited he was honored by the community he loves.