Refugee who died after being deported to Iraq laid to rest in Michigan

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Southfield — As Jimmy Aldaoud, a Detroit refugee found dead in Iraq after his deportation, was laid to rest Friday back in Michigan, family members gathered and dressed in black had no words to describe their grief.

Pallbearers carry the casket of Jimmy Aldaoud, a refugee who died after he was deported to Iraq, after a memorial service Friday at the Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Church in Southfield.

"I can't fathom what has happened," Rita Aldaoud, sister of the refugee, told The Detroit News earlier this week. "Imagine they just picked you up and threw you into a country you've never been and in the most dangerous part."

His three sisters, Nagham Shamoon, Mary Bolis and Rita Aldaoud, gazed at his light brown wooden casket as it was lowered Friday into a plot at Holy Sepulchre Catholic Cemetery, where he was buried beside his mother and beneath his father.

The siblings were quiet during a Mass at Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Church and at his burial, contemplating how their family found itself in these unforeseen circumstances.

Friends and family of Jimmy Aldaoud, a refugee who died after he was deported to Iraq, embrace before his funeral service at The Mother of God Chaldean Catholic Church in Southfield on Friday.

Aldaoud was born in a refugee camp in Greece in 1978 after his parents, George and Widad Aldaoud, fled Iraq between wars. His family was granted refugee status in the United States in 1979, and the family traveled from Greece to Detroit when Aldaoud was about a year old. 

The Detroit News reported that his death, based on family accounts, came after he was unable to find insulin in Iraq. His family and friends in the U.S. said Aldaoud, 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.

Aldaoud's body was reunited with his family after community leaders and elected officials worked with the Iraq consulate to return him to Michigan. While the family says it is grateful for his return, members say he never should have been deported.

The women said their brother was a humble uncle to seven nieces and nephews, but "thankfully, they're in school" and didn't witness his burial, Rita Aldaoud said Friday.

U.S. Reps Andy Levin and Brenda Lawrence attend Jimmy Aldaoud's burial telling the family they will never forget him or their family's story.

The Rev. Patrick Setto presided over the Mass: "We come with heavy hearts and maybe even a little angry, rightfully so," and shared the story of Jesus forgiving his apostles. "We believe that in the most difficult, unjust, in the ugliest of times, Christ wants to be there in the midst of that and say 'peace be with you.' "

About 50 people attended the private funeral. Elderly women draped black-laced scarves over their heads as men kneeled before Aldaoud's casket. In their tradition, Aldaoud's casket was sprinkled with holy water and immersed with incense.

Jimmy Aldaoud was buried beside his mother, Widad Aldaoud, at Holy Sepulchre Catholic Cemetery in Southfield on Sept. 6, 2019.

Setto told the family, "every person is a gift ... and that gift has returned to the Lord and we pray for him and that the Lord may finally give him that peace.

"May he spread his wings and fly," Setto said in closing.

The group formed a procession to Holy Sepulchre Catholic Cemetery, where prayer continued as rain fell.

U.S. Reps. Andy Levin and Brenda Lawrence spoke at the burial.

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Before his death

Aldaoud's family said he suffered from mental illnesses and had manic episodes, but wasn't violent. He left his parents' Hazel Park home as a teen 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."

Immigration officials, in defending his deportation, said his criminal history included more than 20 convictions, among them assault with a dangerous weapon; failure to appear in court; malicious destruction of property; resisting and obstructing police; and marijuana possession.

Jimmy Aldaoud

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," Rita Aldaoud said. "He had mental issues that went untreated and we all did what we could to help him. He didn't deserve this."

Aldaoud 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 against repatriation to Iraq because, it said, if the men were sent back, they faced torture or death because of their Christian faith, for having served in the U.S. military or for seeking U.S. asylum.

After being arrested on a larceny charge, Aldaoud was deported on June 2 with no knowledge of Arabic or Aramaic. His family said they did not know he had been deported until he called from the Najaf airport.

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

A month before his death, he sent a series of videos 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 Aldaoud 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."

Following his death, immigration officials said, "Aldaoud’s immigration case underwent an exhaustive judicial review before the courts ultimately affirmed he had no legal basis to remain in the U.S." They also stated that Aldaoud was supplied with a "full complement of medicine to ensure continuity of care."

Preventing others from the same fate

Miriam Aukerman, a lawyer with the ACLU, said at a vigil for Aldaoud in August that the situation was a shame.

"His death was senseless," Aukerman 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.

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

Aldaoud's death set off a furor among immigration advocates and lawmakers, who are calling for an immediate halt to deportations in light of his death.

Democratic Rep. Levin of Bloomfield Township and Republican Rep. John Moolenaar of Midland say they want Congress to act on a bill to pause Iraqi deportations until all detainees with deportation orders have had their cases heard in court.

Levin said Friday that the bill hasn't made much progress during the August recess.

"Jimmy didn't die in vain and his story is waking people up on Capitol Hill," Levin said after the funeral service. "I feel like we're making new progress with Republican and Democratic staff in the judiciary committee, and I'm hopeful we can do whatever we need to to the legislation to make it acceptable to both parties and stop deportations.

"There will definitely be more Jimmy Aldaouds if we don't urgently pass this."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_