Iraqi detainees from Metro Detroit on hunger strike

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Detroit — Some Iraqi detainees swept up in immigration raids in Metro Detroit this summer are on a hunger strike, saying they would rather die closer to their homes than be deported.

Seven of the dozens of detainees held at the Northeast Ohio Correctional Center for more than three months have gone 72 hours without eating as of Friday afternoon to protest their captivity, officials said.

The seven have been placed under medical supervision, and seven more have since joined the cause, according to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“They continue to be offered three meals daily and provided an adequate supply of drinking water or other beverages,” ICE spokesman Khaalid Walls said. “Several other detainees have been randomly refusing the facility’s prepared meals over the last several days and are being monitored by facility staff.”

Families of detainees, meanwhile, say the center was on a 23-hour lockdown Friday because of the number of detainees participating in the hunger strike, which they believe has grown to about 50.

Walls was unable to comment if any detainees have been transported to a medical care unit during the strike.

But ICE’s hunger strike protocol states a detainee on hunger strike must be isolated “for close supervision, observation and monitoring.”

“The number of individuals participating in the strike can fluctuate at any time as facility staff witnesses detainees ending their hunger strike or reaching the 72-hour threshold,” Walls said.

Crystal Jabiro, a volunteer with Code Legal Aid, a nonprofit legal advocacy group, said a detainee called her Monday to inform her about the strike plans because “they don’t know what else to do.”

“They’d rather die in the facility close to their families, rather than in their own country because they believe U.S. is their home,” Jabiro said. “For a lot of them, their 90-day review came. From what I heard from these inmates, a lot got letters saying they will be detained for another 90 days.”

After 90 days of holding, ICE has to do an individualized review to release on restricted probation or hold for another 90 days, said Rana Elmir, deputy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

“(It appears) that ICE has been rubber-stamping the 90-day review and denying the release in a blanket way, instead of individualizing,” Elmir said.

The U.S. government has said the detainees are being deported because they committed crimes. Families say some of the crimes were minor and some were committed years ago, and that the detainees served their time.

Families of the detainees say they fear they could be persecuted in Iraq because of their Christian faith. Detainees and their families have sought to suspend the deportations so they can further argue in court that sending them to Iraq would be dangerous.

Since the counsel’s last meeting on Aug. 31, an ACLU attorney told a federal judge that some of the detainees are being coerced into signing legal paperwork that would automatically send them back to Iraq.

The ACLU has filed a status report on the matter, detailing the hunger strike issue. The report says 40 to 50 detainees were involved and ICE has refused to give the ACLU information on who is participating and how long they have been on strike.

“We are extremely concerned about the health and treatment of the detainees who are on hunger strike, and it’s imperative that ICE immediately shares information with us, their family members and the public,” Elmir said.

“In addition, the facility has put all who are on hunger strike on lockdown. There are also reports that all petitioners are on lockdown whether they are participating in the strike or not.”

Elmir said the hunger strikes reflect the desperation of the community members who have been in detention for three months without justification.

“They are risking their own lives as a way to try to reunite with their families,” Elmir said.

In June, 114 detainees from Metro Detroit were sent to the detention center in Youngstown, Ohio, about 230 miles from Detroit, after an estimated 1,400 Iraqi immigrants in the U.S. were targeted by the federal government for removal. As of Sept. 4, 107 Metro Detroiters remained there.

Among them is 47-year-old Moayad Barash of Sterling Heights, who is on a hunger strike, according to his family.

“He said he and a lot of people started on Monday and even though not everyone’s participating, it’s affecting everyone,” said his daughter, Angelina Barash. “My dad has type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol, but they are just showing their voices.

“They don’t want to be there anymore.”

Angelina Barash said her father had the flu during his detention and wrote a letter to a nurse for care and didn’t get checked on for six days.

Federal customs enforcement officials say all detainees at the facility have access to food during designated meal periods.

Sisters Ashley and Ashourina Slewo said their father, Warda Slewo, was picked up on June 11 at his home in Madison Heights. Slewo served time in jail and probation before serving in the U.S. Army.

“He betrayed his country of origin by choosing to fight for this country and would definitely be in danger if he was sent back,” Ashourina Slewo said. “He’s disabled and sick. He has depression and PTSD. He slipped and hurt his hip at the detention center but they can’t do anything but give him ibuprofen.”

Ashourina Slewo said she spoke to her father on Tuesday and he said then the strike had been going on for about five days.

“The center has been on lockdown as a result of the hunger strike. I haven’t spoken to him,” Ashourina Slewo said. “My father tried to participate in the hunger strike, but he is diabetic and has unstable blood pressure, among other things, that didn’t allow for him to participate for more than 24 hours.”