At first glance, Iowa Falls might be an uncomfortable place for a devout Muslim. Pork, forbidden in Islam, is big business here, and there isn't a mosque for miles. And yet, for Zalmay Niazy – an Afghan who goes simply by "Zee" – Iowa Falls has been the answer to his prayers.
"Iowa Falls is home," he told correspondent Lee Cowan.
Niazy came to the U.S. after serving as an interpreter for both American and Allied forces in eastern Afghanistan. Every mission made him a target of the Taliban.
"I have seen a lot of my very good friends have been killed," Niazy said, "and we've been given body bags to just pick something for the family."
"Did your Humvee ever get hit?" Cowan asked.
He had a bullet taken out of his arm; he nearly lost an eye to shrapnel; and when the bus he was riding in drove over a roadside bomb, he nearly lost a leg.
When folks in Iowa Falls heard of his service, people like Duane and Emily Kruckenberg didn't just welcome him, they practically saluted him.
"It's not just his personality, it's his character," said Emily. "He would do anything for anybody, and he showed that with the service he did for us."
Duane said, "He's probably more of an American than some people that are born here."
What few people knew, however, was just how Niazy got here in the first place.
In 2014 the U.S. contractor Zee had been working for in Kabul flew him to Washington, D.C., for business. Niazy was thrilled, but he had no intention of leaving Afghanistan for good. "If everybody leaves that country, who's going to fix it?" he said.
Hours after he landed, his parents found a warning – one of several they'd received from the Taliban – nailed to their front door. In short it said if Niazy went home, he'd be dead – and so would his family.
The Taliban has already made good on past threats. Niazy said they murdered his uncle and forced his parents into hiding. "It was the hardest decision of my life, that, 'What am I going to do?'" he said. "I just didn't want any more pain, just didn't want my family to live like immigrants in their own country anymore."
Niazy had no choice but to apply for political asylum.
He had nothing but the clothes on his back when he arrived in Iowa Falls. One of the first to help him was a giant of a man, both in stature and in spirit: Mike Ingebritson. "I don't let him speak his foreign language around me because then I think he's talking about me!" he laughed.
Ingebritson never served in the armed forces (at 6 foot 10 he was too tall), but offering kindness, he said, doesn't have a height restriction.
Cowan asked Ingebritson, "Why did you give him a chance?"
"Oh, you get a kid that's, let's say, 10,000 miles away from home, three-time wounded veteran, and he says, 'Can you help me?' You don't turn him down; you do the right thing."
Ingebritson loaned Niazy money to buy an old house that was practically falling down ("I told him that I am buying this house, he looked at me and said, 'Are you stupid?'"), and helped him turn it into a home. Niazy's pretty handy that way, so much so he started his own business, Zee Handyman Services.
He quickly got a reputation as the contractor the town could count on. Just ask those working at the local optometry shop where he was installing a new ceiling.
Cowan asked, "How important is he to the community as a whole, you think?"
Jill said, "Everybody here knows him. Everybody knows that he would do anything he can for anybody here."
Deb added, "Always willing to help, plus he's a lot of fun!"
Everyone in town pretty much assumed Niazy would be granted asylum, but when his interview with U.S. Immigration finally came around, something didn't seem quite right. "My interview was almost seven hours," he said. He had to account for everything, including his childhood, and one day in particular when, Niazy said, he was forced to give the Taliban a piece of bread at gunpoint, or, they warned: "'We will kill your parents, or we will burn your house.' And as a nine-years-old kid, not even nine yet, I was scared. I didn't 't know what else to do to protect my family. That's what they wanted."
Three months ago, Niazy got a letter from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services that suggested that that morsel of bread he gave the Taliban all those years ago could be viewed as aiding an enemy – an allegation which could get him deported.
Cowan read from the letter: "'You have engaged in terrorist activity.' Did you feel betrayed?"
"I did; I got stabbed in the back," Niazy replied.
As Afghanistan fell to the Taliban the past few weeks, the question on everyone's mind was, if the U.S. was risking life and limb to evacuate people fearing for their lives, why on Earth would they send someone like Zee back?
Mike Ingebritson said, "We're supposed to be reasonable people, and to me we're better than this."
The residents of Iowa Falls quickly went into action, including Mike's wife, Linda. "I won't let it happen," she said. "I mean, everybody in Iowa Falls would go to jail for him, I think."
In a matter of weeks, the town raised more than $40,000 to hire Niazy the best immigration lawyers they could find.
But as the scenes outside Kabul airport became more and more desperate, Niazy was getting more and more anxious, not only for himself, but for his family.
But then, a bit of potential good news: U.S. immigration officials won't comment on why, or what (if anything) has changed pertaining to Niazy's case, but his attorney was notified two weeks ago that the U.S. has now agreed to re-examine his application for asylum.
In Iowa Falls, it doesn't really matter the why. All that matters is that Niazy just might have a chance to stay where they think he belongs.
At a get-together, Duane Kruckenberg raised a glass: "I want to propose a toast to our friend, Zee, that he forever stays in Iowa Falls. Here, here!"
"I promise I will!" Niazy laughed.
For Niazy, it's bitter-sweet; his family is stuck back in Afghanistan, a country he nearly died to re-build. And, he vows, the fight isn't over yet.
"It takes a lot to make a community, to make a country great," he said. "And I did it. I will do it again. And I will stand for what's right."
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Story produced by Amol Mhatre. Editor: Remington Korper.
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