Correction: This story has been updated to correct Nahidh Shaou's first name.
After spending 33 years, six months and 21 days in prison, Nahidh Shaou faces another debt some say is too steep: Deportation back to Iraq, a country where he knows no one, doesn’t speak the language and fears being killed by Islamic State militants because he is Christian.
Shaou is among hundreds of local Iraqi Christians facing deportation in the wake of the Trump administration’s crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Activists call the looming deportations an “egregious human rights violation” because of the genocide against Iraqi Christians by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
After Shaou was paroled from prison six months ago for robbing a restaurant and wounding a police officer, he was never freed -- he immediately was transferred into federal custody. This week, immigration officials moved Shaou to a detention facility in Louisiana, where he’s been told he will be deported any day to Iraq.
His attorney, Richard Kent, has filed an emergency motion to stop federal officials from putting Shaou on the plane to Iraq — the first flight going to the country in seven years. Kent said Thursday night he expects an answer Friday.
For now, Shaou, who served in the U.S. Army and has supported Trump, is praying he doesn’t get sent back to a country he left with his family when he was 5 years old.
“I’m scared to death,” said Shaou, 55, on a telephone call from the LaSalle Detention Center in Jena, Louisiana. “If I show up on their soil, my beheading will probably be on YouTube. I honestly believe that is what is going to happen.”
Family members also are worried for him.
“I have waited for 35 years to go pick up my brother and bring him home,” said his younger sister, Nadia Shaya, who lives in Cincinnati. “I still haven’t picked him up. My hope and prayer is he stays here in the United States, the country he knows and loves and stays out the rest of the years with us.”
Shaya said Immigration and Customs Enforcement called and told the family to deliver a box Friday morning to Detroit ICE office with some clothes for her brother.
“But I am not going to give up hope,” she said. “I am going to keep hoping and praying.”
For years, Iraq has not accepted deportees from the U.S. without travel documents in an effort to secure its border against terrorists from groups such as the Islamic State, said Eman Jajonie-Daman, a Warren-based immigration attorney and Southfield magistrate. Many Iraqis came to the U.S. when they were young and do not have documents to prove they were born in the country, she said.
But a new policy was recently negotiated between the U.S. and Iraq, according to an affidavit from Julius Clinton, a detention and deportation officer assigned to Enforcement and Removal Operations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“As a result of these negotiations via the United State Embassy in Baghdad, Iraq,” Clinton wrote, “ERO has received approval from the Iraqi government to return a number of Iraqi nationals ordered removed from the United States. On Feb. 6, 2017, ERO received approval to move forward with the scheduling of removals. HQ ERO has approved a list of Iraqi nationals that will be repatriated. Iraq will accept these subjects without a travel document. The first group of removals are scheduled for April 2017.”
Iraq was included in Trump’s January travel ban of seven Muslim-majority countries but was dropped from the list in March. Some activists suspect Iraq was left out of Trump’s revised travel ban because the country’s government agreed to take back native Iraqis who faced deportation from the U.S., Jajonie-Daman said.
It’s not clear how many Iraqi-born residents nationwide are being targeted for removal, but many are Christians, Jajonie-Daman said. That’s why she and many others are outraged since atrocities have been inflicted on Christians and ethnic minorities in the country, acts that the U.S. has declared genocide.
“This is most egregious violation of human rights,” said Jajonie-Daman.
Joseph Kassab, founder and president of the Iraqi Christians Advocacy and Empowerment Institute in West Bloomfield, agreed it is inhumane to send Iraqi Christians back to their native country. It’s also hypocritical, he said.
“The U.S. accepts religious minorities from Iraq under heavy religious persecution as refugees, and now we are sending Christians back to Iraq to be killed?” Kassab said. “We are sending them to their death sentence.”
‘Fear and anxiety’
The first charter flight to Iraq since 2010 is leaving the U.S. this month, confirmed Khaalid Walls, spokesman for ICE’s Detroit office. He declined to say how many people would be aboard or when it would be departing.
“For operational security reasons, we don’t confirm that level of detail prior to a flight,” Walls said.
About 300 families who face a final order of removal or are at risk of deportation attended a meeting last week, said Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation.
“Many of them are full of fear and anxiety,” Manna said.
Among them is Shaou, who was born in Iraq but came to live in Detroit near Seven Mile with his parents and four siblings in 1967. Shaou said they were legal immigrants who waited years to be allowed to come to the U.S.
Since the laws for people to leave Iraq and enter the U.S. were different then, Shaou said the children did not have passports. All got green cards, and eventually the rest of his family gained citizenship.
Shaou said he tried to become a citizen when he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1980 at age 17. But the process took time and was interrupted when he went to serve in South Korea for six months.
When he was discharged from the Army, he went to Detroit to resume the process but the proceedings were terminated after he was charged with armed robbery with intent to murder in 1983.
‘I acted like (an) idiot’
The incident occurred at a McDonald’s in Rochester Hills, after he had gotten off his job at a security firm. It was near closing at the restaurant, and he went to the bathroom to clean up. According to Shaou, the person behind the counter questioned why he hadn’t ordered his meal first.
Shaou said he is still embarrassed and ashamed by how he responded, but he wanted to teach the manager a lesson about respect.
“I escalated it,” he said. “I acted like a complete idiot.”
Shaou told the workers that if they had no idea what it is like to be taken advantage of, he would show them. He pulled out his gun and told them to give him the money from the register.
The employees gave him money and Shaou said he remembers walking outside. But as he was pulling out of the McDonald’s parking lot, he was stopped by a police car.
He claims he doesn’t recall police lights on the car, and all he remembers seeing was a uniform and a weapon – not the person’s face. But it was a police officer.
Shaou — who claims he blacked out during parts of the incident — grabbed his gun and shot the officer.
He pleaded guilty and was sent to prison with a sentence of 42 to 200 years for the robbery, assault and firearm violation.
“Going to prison was what I expected,” Shaou said. “I accepted it. I deserved it. I did something to someone who didn’t deserve it. Thankfully, he survived.”
During his nearly 34 years in 16 prisons, Shaou said he earned several degrees and certificates, worked on helping his fellow inmates and always held a job.
Shaou said he has never been bitter or angry while incarcerated, even though a parole board member recently remarked three times that he had served a lot of time for the crimes he committed.
But now he is starting to get angry and a little bitter not only for himself, but other Chaldeans who supported Trump since the president is not supporting them. A change.org petition calling for a halt to deportation proceedings against Shaou and other Iraqi Christians had more than 480 signatures as of Thursday evening.
“There are thousands of Iraqi Christians who are waiting to meet their executioner,” Shaou said. “We are not a disposable group of people in this country. I feel totally betrayed. We didn’t come here and get on welfare, we contributed to the fabric that made this country. We still have value, just as any other ex-con has value. This is not what America stands for.”