For many in Detroit’s Iraqi Chaldean Catholic community, the election of President Trump appeared a positive development. They envisioned a bright future with an administration led by a man who had advocated strongly on behalf of Christian minorities in majority-Muslim countries.
“Christians in the Middle-East have been executed in large numbers,” Trump tweeted in 2017. “We cannot allow this horror to continue!”
A few months into his presidency, however, scores of Iraqi immigrants were swept up in immigration enforcement raids for overstaying visas or criminal convictions. Many are Christians who fled their war-torn homeland, some when they were children decades ago.
Since then, the community — in a state that could prove crucial in the coming presidential election — has been on edge. News last week of the death of a Detroit man who was deported to Iraq two months ago has heightened fears. Some view it as a prime example of how Trump has turned his back on a community he promised to protect.
Jimmy Aldaoud, 41, had never set foot in Iraq. He was born in a refugee camp in Greece to parents who fled Iraq; because Greece doesn’t recognize birthright citizenship, he was considered an Iraqi national.
For much of his life, friends say, Aldaoud battled depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and he also had diabetes. He depended on the support of family and friends, they said.
But he also had a long string of convictions for crimes that included assault with a dangerous weapon and domestic violence, federal officials said.
After he was deported for his criminal record, he felt alone and ill, friends said, and he was taken to a hospital in Baghdad for treatment. A day after being discharged, they said, he was found dead.
“He had no idea where to restock his supply of insulin. His family would send him money, but he began to tell his sister that he was vomiting and throwing up blood,” said Edward Bajoka, an attorney who is close with Aldaoud’s family.
Aldaoud’s death underscores the fear many Iraqi nationals with deportation orders have about returning to the war-ravaged country.
“There’s a lot of anxiety” said Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation. “Jimmy was sacrificed because of U.S. immigration policy, and that needs to change.”
Before Trump’s election, Iraqi nationals who were eligible for deportation were usually allowed to remain in the U.S. because Iraq refused to accept them, lawyers said.
That changed in 2017 when the Trump White House reached an agreement with Iraq to repatriate its nationals who were subject to deportation.
Members of the Detroit’s Iraqi diaspora and immigrant advocates waged a legal battle against the Trump administration, contending that deportees would face persecution, torture or death in Iraq. Many had spent decades in the U.S. and have children who are American citizens. Some hadn’t been to Iraq since they were children — or ever — and didn’t speak its languages.
In 2017, a federal judge in Detroit placed a temporary hold on the deportation of more than 1,400 Iraqis nationwide who had been issued final orders of removal. The ruling by U.S. District Judge Mark Goldsmith prevented Immigration and Customs Enforcement from deporting at least 114 Iraqis — most of them Chaldean Catholics who were detained in the Detroit area.
In April, the U.S. 6th Circuit Court of Appeal reversed the ruling and allowed immigration agents to resume the deportations.
According to census data, the metropolitan Detroit area is home to the largest Iraqi population outside Iraq, with around 121,000 people. Many are Chaldean Catholics who supported Trump, such as Eva Shamou.
“Our church was pushing us to vote for Trump, but he sold us empty promises. We feel like we were betrayed,” she said.
Shamou, 43, said that her uncle left Iraq in the early 1980s and was raised in the U.S. She said that when he was in his 20s, he served time for drug charges.
Before he was deported last month, Shamou said, he worked for a roofing company.
“I honestly thought Trump would protect this community,” she said.
In the wake of Aldaoud’s death, Shamou fears for her uncle’s life. Getting in touch with him has been difficult, Shamou said, because he doesn’t have a phone.
“He’s living in a dangerous place, and he has no money and no place to stay,” she said. “He told me he’s ready to commit suicide.”
Aldaoud was brought to the U.S. by his parents when he was 6 months old and lived most of his life in Shelby Township, an affluent northern suburb of Detroit.
Over the years, many in the community came to view him as a humble and friendly man whose extensive criminal record belied a kind and innocent nature.
According to a statement from ICE, Aldaoud had at least 20 convictions for crimes that also included destruction of property and home invasion, the latter a 2012 case in which he was charged with entering a garage and stealing power tools. According to court records , he served 17 months for that offense.
Friends said Aldaoud needed a strong support system to stay afloat and that mental illness made it difficult for him to function normally.
“He was one of the most vulnerable people out there, and the issues he had landed him in and out of trouble,” said Bajoka, the attorney.
Aldaoud was ordered removed from the United States in May 2018, according to ICE. When he was released from ICE custody in December, after the initial court ruling on detention, he cut off his GPS tether. Police arrested him in April on suspicion of
larceny from a motor vehicle, and he was deported two months later.
“I begged them. I said: ‘Please, I’ve never seen that country. I’ve never been there,’” Aldaoud said in a Facebook video that’s been widely circulated. “However, they forced me.”
Compounding matters was that Aldaoud was sent to Najaf, the spiritual capital of Shiite Muslims about 100 miles south of Baghdad.
Aldaoud wouldn’t necessarily have been in danger because of his religion, but he certainly would have felt out of place as a member of Iraq’s Assyrian community, a quickly vanishing Christian minority that has suffered through the successive spasms of violence in Iraq. About 80% of Iraq’s of Christians have left since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, according to federal statistics.
Yonadam Kanna, a Christian member of parliament and head of the Assyrian Democratic Party, had been in touch with members of Aldaoud’s family. He mobilized people he knew to have Aldaoud moved from Najaf to Baghdad.
Aldaoud eventually rented an apartment in the Karaaj Amaanah neighborhood, but he often was on the street, said Fedy Amanoel, 27, a friend who had known him from Detroit and was deported to Baghdad in August 2018.
ICE said Aldaoud was provided with “a full complement of medicine to ensure continuity of care” for his diabetes, but family and friends said he was given only a two-day supply of insulin and struggled to find more in Iraq.
“He couldn’t get the medication he needed,” Bajoka said.
On Tuesday, one of Aldaoud’s relatives called Kanna to say he had been taken to hospital and was bleeding from his nose and mouth.
Amanoel claimed he had seen Aldaoud on the street earlier that night, sleeping by a dumpster. When Amanoel came back later, his friend was a few streets down, his face bloodied.
Neighbors took him to the hospital. On Aug. 7, Kanna said, he received word that Aldaoud had died.
Back in Detroit, some say they are having trouble wrapping their heads around what’s happened.
“We would always talk about how someone who was deported could die because of the conditions in Iraq,” said Nadine Yousif Kalasho, president and attorney of Code Legal Aid, a Michigan-based nonprofit. “But I never thought I’d have to face it.”
Etehad reported from Los Angeles and Bulos from Beirut.