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Small town rallies around former Afghan interpreter's fight for asylum

Zalmay Niazy
Posted at 12:26 PM, Sep 14, 2021

Zalmay Niazy isn’t a native Iowan.

“I think the community would be lost without him," said his friend, Robbie Katschke.

To those in Iowa Falls, where Niazy goes by Zee, he’s as American as it gets.

"You got a, to me, a true American hero," said Mike Ingebritson.

Niazy was born and raised in Afghanistan. He worked alongside US forces as an interpreter in the war.

"An interpreter has to have very good judgment, because a single mistake can cause a lot of problems," Niazy explained.

Niazy was shot and nearly lost his eye in an IED blast.

“I don’t remember a day that we came back with a full magazine to our base," Niazy said.

The Taliban killed Niazy's uncle and they often sent letters threatening to harm his family. Many of whom are still overseas today.

He came to the United States in 2014 with a roundtrip ticket. When the Taliban learned he was in Washington D.C. for a conference, they said if he came back to Afghanistan, they’d kill him.

Niazy said he couldn't return home.

“I said, ‘I have served this country and I have to be protected.’ That’s what I have been told and that’s what I did," Niazy said.

Niazy found his way to Iowa Falls through a cousin who had settled there.

"You can see America on TV; it doesn’t look like Iowa," Niazy said.

Over the past six years, he’s built a successful handyman business, and he owns a home he renovated himself.

He’s also made friends that have become family, like Ingebritson.

“I have four grandchildren and he’s the oldest," Ingrebritson said. “He’s long ways from home. He served his country, served this country. Soldiers came home because of him.”

But U.S. immigration officials have not been so welcoming.

“The Taliban is a reality in my country. I can’t hide it," Niazy said.

In 2017, Niazy went through a seven-hour interview as part of his request for asylum to stay.

“Some questions were, ‘Have I ever seen the Taliban and what was my closest interaction with them?’" Niazy recalled.

Niazy told officials that when he was nine years old, the Taliban came to his home and demanded he provides them with food.

“They said, ‘We’ll burn your house. We’ll kill your father. We’ll kill your mother," Niazy said. “I had to go home. Mom threw me a piece of bread. It wasn’t bigger than my hand, and just give it to them and they leave.”

In May of this year, after four years of waiting to hear about his asylum case, Niazy received a letter from the government. It stated Niazy supported terrorism and he could be deported.

“Unfortunately, the threshold for the support for terrorism is tremendously low," said Niazy's attorney, Keith Herting.

Herting believes that interaction when Niazy was nine--giving the Taliban a piece of bread at gunpoint--gave the government concern.

“Just a bag of bread--that could be the sort of thing that would prevent him from being able to enter," Herting said.

“I don’t know what else to do when you are under threat," Niazy said. "When you are trying to save yourself and your family and they’re clearly telling you what to do.”

“My legs just turned to rubber, I just had to sit down," Ingebritson said about when he heard about the letter Niazy received.

When that letter came, this small farming town went to work.

“We’ve had people who have said, ‘You will take me before you take him,’" Katschke said.

Community members have raised thousands of dollars to pay legal fees, but the support goes beyond money.

“I got it in me. I’m 71. If I, I guess I’d go to jail if I had to, to keep him safe," Ingebritson said of his friend.

In August, there was a sign of hope. The government said it will review Niazy's asylum application, and he is no longer on track to be deported.

“Until I get my card and look it, and I will say, ‘I earned you,’ I won’t believe it," Niazy said.

For now, Niazy waits. But to those in the Iowa town he now calls home, the belief he should stay has become as abundant as the cornfields surrounding Iowa Falls.

“I never thought I would be involved in something like this, but I ain't quittin! I’m not going to quit," Ingebritson said.