Des Moines, Iowa (CNN)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
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