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Sterling Heights — No words were prepared in advance, the family said, for a crowd dressed in black Thursday night to mourn the death of a refugee from Michigan found dead last week after he was deported to Iraq.

"I can't fathom what has happened. Our family is still in shock," said Rita Al-Daoud, the sister of detainee Jimmy Al-Daoud. "I have no idea what to say to people. Imagine they just picked you up and through you into a country you've never been and in the most dangerous part."

Local leaders and others, including members of the American Civil Liberties Union; U.S. Rep. Andy Levin; and Michael Taylor, the mayor of Sterling Heights; joined a vigil of about 150 people at the Chaldean Community Foundation in Sterling Heights.

“His death was senseless,” Miriam Aukerman, a lawyer with the ACLU, said in tears at the gathering. “We knew he would die once he was left in that airport with nothing. There’s nothing we can do to restore Jimmy to his family, but we will do everything we can to fight for you, in the courts, in Congress, at events like this tonight.

"He has helped us in that fight to show the world what is really at stake here: Life and death.”

Al-Daoud's ACLU attorney, Chris Schaedig, said the system didn’t fail Al-Daoud, it hurt him.

“He used to say all the time, ‘Just tell them I wasn’t born in Iraqi, they’ll understand,’ “ Schaedig said. “I would say, 'I know, Jimmy. They know. They don’t care.' The system didn’t fail him. The system did what it was designed to do – hurt vulnerable people, and it will do it again.

“Honor his memory because he had such a hard life and a pointless death. We will keep fighting for you, don’t give up."

Al-Daoud, who was mentally ill and diabetic, was born in a refugee camp in Greece in 1978 after his parents fled Iraq between wars. His family was granted refugee status in the United States in 1979, and they traveled from Greece to Detroit when Al-Daoud was about a year old. 

His body will be returned to Michigan to be buried next to his family members in Southfield later this month, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin said.

"This doesn't bring a lot of closure to the family, and even though we are working on getting Jimmy's body, this vigil gives our community a chance to come together and process this needless death," said Levin. "How can you make sense of something like this?"

Last week, The Detroit News reported his death based on family accounts. His family and friends in the U.S. say Al-Daoud, who they say was bipolar and schizophrenic, had been living on the streets in Baghdad with two other men who had been deported the same day. He was 41 years old.

They said he died from not being able to find medication, but ICE said before his June 2 deportation that "he was supplied with a full complement of medicine to ensure continuity of care." 

ICE declined to comment further on Al-Daoud's case, saying, "Al-Daoud’s immigration case underwent an exhaustive judicial review before the courts ultimately affirmed he had no legal basis to remain in the U.S."

Martin Manna, president of the Chaldean Community Foundation, said the request to return Al-Daoud's remains was submitted to the Iraqi Consul, who helped expedite the return of Al-Daoud. The Chaldean Community Foundation is covering the costs associated with repatriating Al-Daoud's body and is aiding the family for his funeral arrangements.

"No word yet on when we'll get his body returned, but we are working on making it happen by the end of the month so this family can find closure," Manna said.

Before his death

His family said he suffered from mental illnesses and had manic episodes, but wasn't violent. He left his parent's Hazel Park home following a domestic incident with his father and lived on the streets. 

His sisters were born in the U.S. and his parents became citizens, but the family said, there was "no way his mental illness would comprehend such a test."

ICE defended his deportation, saying his criminal history includes more than 20 convictions, including assault with a dangerous weapon; failure to appear in court; malicious destruction of property; resisting and obstructing police; and marijuana possession.

Immigration officials said he was ordered to be removed in 2005 but was never issued travel papers for deportation to Iraq.

"He wasn't a hurtful person," his sister said. "He had mental issues that went untreated and we all did what we could to help him. He didn't deserve this."

Al-Daoud was one of the targeted plaintiffs in Hamama v. Adducci, a nationwide class-action lawsuit brought by the ACLU of Michigan in 2017. The ACLU lawsuit was filed after more than 1,400 Iraqi nationals nationwide — 114 from Michigan — were swept up in the 2017 raids.

The ACLU of Michigan has argued in federal court, where the detainees' fates have played out for the past two years, against repatriation to Iraq because, it says, if the men are sent back, they face torture or death because of their Christian faith, for having served in the U.S. military or for seeking U.S. asylum.

Al-Daoud's family said he was forced onto the plane when he was deported without access to a phone.

Once he arrived in Iraq, he begged security to use their phones until he was able to call home. He spent three days in the airport waiting for transportation arranged by family to a room in Baghdad. 

A month before his death, he sent a video to a longtime friend in which he spoke of the difficulties of not knowing the language and being unable to communicate, get insulin for diabetes or find shelter. 

"In my last phone call with him, he said 'I'd rather spend the rest of my life in prison in the U.S. than to have been shipped here,' " Rita Al-Daoud said. "He was crying out for my mom who died four years ago. It was painful trying to comfort him. He shouldn't have been deported."

Maria Simon from Grosse Pointe Farms attended the vigil in support of the family saying she's hoping for immigration reform. 

"I heard about the vigil from my congresswoman Brenda Lawrence and couldn't stop thinking how horrible and tragic his death was," said Simon, 60. "It's an injustice, so inhumane... there are no words."

Preventing others from the same fate

His family says while they try to find closure, they can only hope for justice and policy change in his name.

Levin and Republican Rep. John Moolenaar of Midland have been pressing Congress to act on a bipartisan bill to pause Iraqi deportations since May. In light of Al-Daoud's death, Levin and 40 House Democrats sent a letter to Trump imploring him to end detention and deportations of Iraqi nationals living in the country. 

"I don’t know how we’re going to win this, but we’re going to," Levin told the crowd. “We need to fight to save others from this injustice.”

srahal@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @SarahRahal_

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