116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
The terrorists rode on motorcycles to the home in Afghanistan. They wore masks and carried guns. They came upon a little boy, grabbed him by the neck, and demanded he bring them bread. If he didn’t, they would harm him and his family, they said.
The little boy was 9 years old. He had never seen a gun before. He was scared. He did as they asked.
Now many years later, that interaction could prove to be a death sentence for Zalmay Niazy — an Iowa Falls man and the little boy in that story who is fighting an immigration effort to return him to Afghanistan.
A decade after the day he brought that piece of bread — “a piece no bigger than a cellphone” — to those terrorists, Niazy, who had learned English as a child, began working as an interpreter for U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. He did that for three years, from 2007 to 2009, putting his life in danger both at work — he was wounded in multiple bombings — and at home, where Taliban forces threatened him and his family. The Taliban in 2008 made good on its threats, killing Niazy’s uncle, he said.
A few years later, Niazy’s employer sent him to a work conference in Washington, D.C. Niazy made plans to not only attend the conference but while in the United States also apply for political asylum under a program created for former interpreters who aided U.S. military — like Niazy.
Shortly after arriving in America, it became clear the Taliban knew of Niazy’s travels, and the threats resumed. Niazy’s parents warned him to not return home; they feared if he did, the Taliban would kill him.
Niazy reached out to a family member already in the states: his cousin, Farid Ahmad, in Iowa Falls. Ahmad also had worked as an interpreter and immigrated to the United States through the same program to which Niazy hoped to apply. Niazy moved in with his cousin in 2015, and he has lived in Iowa Falls ever since.
He applied for political asylum through the Special Immigrant Visa program, although he did not hear about his case for years. Meantime, he made a life for himself in Iowa Falls: He worked myriad odd jobs — landscaping, construction and others — to make money. While there were setbacks along the way, he continued to work, sometimes 12-hour days for seven days a week, he said.
Now, Niazy runs his own contracting company, Zee Handyman Services, named after the nickname by which he has become known around Iowa Falls. He bought a home, which he has renovated.
But just as life was getting comfortable for Niazy, he was dealt a crushing blow. In May, his application for asylum was denied by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The reason given: that interaction Niazy had as a 9-year-old boy with Taliban terrorists.
Niazy served alongside U.S. troops in Afghanistan for three years during Operation Enduring Freedom. He was shot at, wounded, and had his life threatened repeatedly because of that work.
And now the federal government that Niazy once assisted in the theater of war has told him he cannot stay here because, as a child under threat of death, he gave terrorists a piece of bread.
“I’m very disappointed, to be honest with you,” Niazy said last week during a phone interview from his home in Iowa Falls. “(I thought) I will be treated a little better by the government. I’ve been very, very disgusted by what I got and what I have went through over the last six years of my life.”
Niazy is scheduled for a hearing before an immigration judge on June 28 in Omaha. The Iowa Falls community has rallied around him, hoping to find a way for him to stay in the United States.
Because if he is forced to return to Afghanistan, “that is a death sentence,” Niazy said.
Keith Herting, a Des Moines lawyer who has been working with Niazy, said what constitutes support of terrorism in recent years has expanded and become “more skewed.” He points to a 2018 case, in which a woman was denied asylum because after being captured and seeing her husband murdered by guerrillas in El Salvador, she was forced to cook and clean for the guerrillas. Providing those services, even under threat of death, was considered by the immigration court to be support of terrorists.
Herting is concerned Niazy’s case will suffer the same fate.
“I don’t like putting odds on outcomes for my clients, but the case law is not positive for Zalmay,” Herting wrote in an email. “Certainly we still have hope that we can get people interested enough in his story that there may be positive change, but without some reform in the law, he’s facing a very steep uphill climb. I am sure the court will be sympathetic to his story, but sympathy doesn’t change the law and the law in this area is fundamentally rotten.”
As Niazy said, “That is the form of appreciation for what I have done for the country, and what I am getting in return from it.”
Niazy made clear his frustration is with the U.S. government and its asylum laws, not with the people he has met here. He expressed a deep love of and gratitude for the Iowa Falls community.
“Iowa’s been very great to me, and that’s why I’ve stayed here. I have close family in other states, but I love Iowa Falls. I’ve been treated good,” Niazy said. “I’m overwhelmed with the support of the whole state, especially Iowa Falls.”
Niazy's story has been told before. It has been documented by his hometown paper, the Iowa Falls Times Citizen, and in 2017 gained national attention after Niazy spoke at a town hall hosted by U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley, R- Iowa.
Niazy is trying to remain optimistic. Like the community that has embraced him, he is exhausting all options, hoping to find a way to remain in the country.
He has to, because the alternative is dire.
“I guess I have to fight it,” Niazy said. “That’s the only way that I can survive.”