When Zalmay Niazy was a 9-year-old boy in Afghanistan, he said, he was playing with some friends one day when a group of Taliban rode into town and demanded that he bring them some bread – or else his family would be harmed.
Terrified, he ran home, grabbed a piece of bread that was no larger than a cell phone, he said, and took it back to the group of men.
“I thought I was a hero. I protected my family and did what I was told,” Niazy, who’s now 33, told CNN in an interview on Tuesday while recalling the incident. “It wasn’t a request; it was an order. If a piece of bread could protect my family, I would do it again.”
The moment haunted him, and he later became an interpreter for the US Army and worked in other supporting roles for allied forces in Afghanistan more than a decade ago. His family continued facing threats, and Niazy says he was shot in the arm once and his leg was crushed in a bus accident after it had been targeted by a grenade.
It’s a history detailed in his 2015 application for asylum in the United States. When he traveled to Washington, DC, in 2014 to attend a conference, he stayed in the country and moved to Iowa – too afraid to return to Afghanistan once word got out that he was in the US and dubbed a “spy” by Taliban forces, he said.
“I just wanted to be alive, and I don’t want to be a problem to my parents or anyone else,” he said, describing why he had stayed in the United States. “I applied for political asylum. It’s my right. I wanted to be alive.”
Now, Niazy, who is still living in Iowa, faces possible deportation after he was not found eligible for asylum by US Citizenship and Immigration Services, which is under the Department of Homeland Security.
In the response handed down in May – six years after he had applied – the government refused to grant him asylum and referred his case to an immigration judge for further review.
The reason listed for its decision was short and to the point: “You have engaged in terrorist activity.” The notice said Niazy had “failed to establish by a preponderance of the evidence that such reason(s) does not apply to” him.
It was a dizzying statement for Niazy. The government didn’t specify what it meant by “terrorist activity” and when reached by CNN, a spokesperson for US Citizenship and Immigration Services said the department doesn’t discuss information about asylum applications.
But Niazy suspects they’re referring to that terrifying moment when he was 9 and gave the Taliban some bread. It was an anecdote that he had recounted in his asylum interview, according to Niazy and his lawyer, when he was asked if he had ever met anyone in the Taliban. He and his lawyer now fear that’s the reason his request for asylum was not granted.
Niazy, who’s been running his own handyman business in Iowa, now feels stuck in no-man’s-land.
“By the US government, I got tagged a terrorist. By the Taliban, I got tagged as a US spy,” he said. “I am human, too. I want to be alive. And God is giving me life, but they’re taking my life away from me, just for me doing what I did when I was 9 to protect my family.”
Targeted by Taliban
While Niazy has already been in the United States for several years, his story comes as thousands of other Afghan interpreters and people who assisted US forces are now trying to leave Afghanistan as the United States removes its troops from the country.
Up to 18,000 people are applying for the Special Immigrant Visa program, and a US official and another source familiar with discussions say the United States is in talks with countries in Central Asia over them temporarily housing the applicants, until they can complete the long visa process. If they’re allowed to bring family members, that effort could extend to upward of 50,000 people, according to sources.
Niazy’s story is notably different from what interpreters and allies are currently facing in Afghanistan. Since he was already in the United States and feared returning home, he and his attorney filed for asylum rather than a Special Immigrant Visa.
Not long after Niazy started working as an interpreter for US forces in March 2007, his family began facing threats from the Taliban in his home province of Uruzgan, according to his asylum application. The Taliban began sending letters to his family in which they promised to “punish” him if he didn’t stop working for US troops, whom they labeled “infidels.”
When Niazy continued working as an interpreter, the Taliban killed his uncle, he said, sending the family a letter claiming responsibility for the death, according to handwritten letters provided and translated by Niazy and his lawyer. His family relocated to Kabul, and Niazy quit his job in 2009 and took up a different job for an Afghan construction company that partnered with NATO and US forces.
According to his asylum application, he was approached by anti-government forces while driving on October 11, 2009, who shot at his car dozens of times as he tried to get away. A bullet struck Niazy’s arm, but he managed to escape.
The following year, he was targeted by Taliban forces with a rocket-propelled grenade while he and some co-workers were traveling in a passenger bus. The perpetrators missed the bus, but the bus driver lost control of the vehicle and flipped as they tried to escape. Niazy’s leg was crushed in the accident, according to his application.
In December 2014, Niazy went to Washington to attend the Afghan-American Chamber of Commerce’s US-Afghanistan Business Matchmaking Conference. When the Taliban learned he was in the United States, they sent another threatening letter to his father. Niazy had a cousin who had also served as an interpreter and was living in the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa, so Niazy stayed and moved to Iowa to be near his cousin.
Less than a year later, Niazy applied for asylum.
Appeal could take years
Since the decision by Citizenship and Immigration Services in May, Niazy waits in a paralyzing state of fear, worried that if he’s sent back home, he’ll be killed. He said he has to take medicine to deal with the anxiety of living “in limbo.”
“I am not stable,” he said. “I’m just like plastic in the grass. The wind will take it from place to place to place. At the end, it will end up in garbage.”
Niazy’s lawyer, Keith Herting, says there is still a legal path to prevent deportation – but it could take years.
The letter from Citizenship and Immigration Services specified that Niazy’s application for asylum was not technically denied and that he can ask the immigration judge to reconsider it. The judge does not need to follow the decision made by the agency and will review the claim independently.
Until then, Niazy, his lawyer and his community will continue to seek answers as to why he was accused of engaging in terrorist activity – a statement that still feels like a shock for Niazy.
“I fought this terrorist organization,” he said. “How can I be accused of being a part of them or with them or supportive of them?”
CNN’s Nicole Gaouette, Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler contributed to this report.