MADISON HEIGHTS, Mich. — The kettle steamed in the background as a familiar yet painful argument began to boil over between father and daughter in the Slewo home last Inauguration Day.
“My president is going to be good for the Christians and the economy,” Warda Slewo, an ardent Donald Trump fan, told his daughter, Ashourina Slewo, in her small kitchen in the northeastern suburbs of Detroit on Jan. 20, 2017.
“Your president is a racist,” Ashourina shot back. “I can’t look at your face when you’re saying that his plan for the economy outweighs the horrible things he’s saying about humans.”
The argument got so heated that Ashourina’s big sister Ashley physically inserted herself between the two, telling her father to leave the house while everyone cooled down.
Warda later apologized to his daughter, and the two made up.
“There’s a very good chance he won Michigan because of our community. We did trust President Trump to protect us.”
But just a few months later, Ashourina’s worst fears about what Trump’s election would mean for their Iraqi Christian family came true. On a hot Sunday in June, US Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents fanned out in the Detroit suburbs, picking up more than 100 Iraqi immigrants as they made their way home from churches or family lunches. One of them was Ashourina’s father.
When Warda Slewo reached a detention center in Ohio early the next morning, ICE allowed him a one-minute phone call. “Write this down,” he told his daughter. “They’re holding me in Youngstown. Don’t leave me.”
An automated voice chimed in the background, warning the two that they only had 10 seconds left to speak.
“Hey Dad,” Ashourina said, unable to help herself. “Do you still support Trump?”
She heard the sound of her dad cursing in Aramaic before the line went dead.
Ashourina’s pointed question to her 53-year-old father is one that’s reverberating through the close-knit Iraqi Christian community in southeastern Michigan, opening up painful rifts among families and old friends that could affect the 2020 presidential election in this crucial Midwestern state.
Trump captured the votes of many in this deeply religious enclave with his antiabortion stance, and dazzled them with his specific promise on the campaign trail to protect Christian minorities in the Middle East and crush the terrorist group ISIS. When Trump denigrated other immigrant groups, referring to Mexicans flooding across the border as “rapists” and calling for a total ban on Muslim immigration to the United States, some Iraqi Christians — who are also called Chaldeans, after the name of their branch of the Catholic Church — saw no threat to their community whose members largely entered the country legally.
Influential figures among them threw their support behind Trump, boosting his long-shot candidacy. A Chaldean priest was photographed giving a blessing to Trump in a brief meeting the October before the election in an image that was shared widely on Facebook. Other Chaldeans attended Trump rallies holding signs promising support from Christians from the Middle East.
“There’s a very good chance he won Michigan because of our community,” said Nahren Anweya, an Iraqi-American Christian activist from southeast Michigan who enthusiastically backed Trump in 2016. “We did trust President Trump to protect us.”
Warda Slewo shocked his Bernie Sanders-supporting daughter when he began singing Trump’s praises a few months before the election, after previously seeming not to care about the presidential race at all.
“Suddenly one day my dad is telling me, ‘He promises to protect the Christians and he’s a businessman, he can help the economy,’ ” Ashourina recalled. “I was dumbfounded.”
Anweya and other Chaldeans attended a Trump rally shortly before the election, posting on Instagram that “the energy and patriotism was REMARKABLE!” She also posted a selfie with Mike Pence and the hashtag “stopthegenocide,” referring to the slaughter of Christians in Iraq. Shortly after the election, Anweya uploaded a soft-focus image of Trump sewing together the American flag, calling him “the healer of this nation.”
Just to the south of the Chaldean enclave, others were processing Trump’s election very differently. The large population of American Muslims with roots in the Middle East in Dearborn were alarmed by his call for a temporary ban on all Muslim immigration even as some of their Chaldean neighbors voiced support for Trump’s call for a Muslim ban.
The image of Trump as protector was shaken early in his presidency. Just days after he took office, Trump followed through on his campaign promise to ban immigration from several majority-Muslim nations, including Iraq. In order to remove itself from that list, the Iraqi government complied with the Trump administration’s request to reverse its long-held stance of refusing deportees from the United States. Soon after, ICE agents rounded up Iraqis across the US. Most were legal immigrants but had committed crimes, often decades ago, making them eligible to be deported to a country where, they believed, they could face death or torture. These offenders included Warda Slewo, one of Trump’s ardent fans, who was convicted of a third-degree sexual offense in Michigan 10 years ago.
Ironically, it was Trump’s idea for a Muslim ban, a notion some Iraqi Christians quietly supported, that ultimately led to that wave of deportations that swept away many in the community.
“Those that were expressing these ideas [in support of the Muslim ban] were literally digging graves for the Muslim community and we fell into it,” Ashourina said.
Iraqi Christians like the Slewos began arriving in Detroit in the early 1900s, opening grocery stores, liquor stores, and hotels that served the area’s newly flush workers making $5 a day at Henry Ford’s car factories. The Slewos arrived later in the migration, in the 1990s, after fleeing Iraq in the aftermath of the Gulf War, and settled in Detroit about a mile from “Chaldean Town” — an Iraqi Christian community filled with churches, bakeries, and shops that closely replicated life in the Northern Iraqi villages they were forced to abandon due to war and persecution.
Chaldean Town was just one of many ethnic enclaves that sprouted up around Detroit during its boom times; and decades later, the metro area is one of the most racially segregated in the country.
Ashourina, 24, would spend the weekends with her mom in the back of a Chaldean bakery, where the workers spoke Aramaic — the Chaldean language believed to have been spoken by Jesus. Sundays were for church, and family.
“I always smelled like bread on Saturdays,” she recalled.
Chaldean Town — now shuttered churches and boarded-up shops — faded into decrepitude as the Iraqi-Americans moved into the suburbs of Macomb and Oakland counties. There, the Iraqi Christian community has continued to flourish, growing to include more than 150,000 people in southeastern Michigan, according to one survey. Its wealthiest members gather at a gleaming, Chaldean-only country club called Shenandoah in the leafy suburb of West Bloomfield, while the newer immigrants — many of them arriving after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq — spread out over the less affluent northeastern suburbs of Warren and Sterling Heights.
The latter community is in Macomb County, which is known for swinging between Democrat and Republican in presidential elections. It swerved from Barack Obama in 2012 to backing Trump in 2016 by a 16-point margin. Influential Chaldeans claim that it was their community’s vote that made the difference for Trump, who won Michigan by less than 11,000 votes. As the president seeks reelection while facing a rapidly escalating impeachment inquiry in the House, he needs to maintain that narrow edge to win again.
“We’re very conservative, we believe in family values,” said Nabby Yono, a Chaldean community leader whose office shelves are lined with photos of himself grinning with Republican luminaries such as Condoleezza Rice, Colin Powell, and George H.W. Bush. “And this is what has made us successful.”
Numerous politicians including Vice President Mike Pence have made the pilgrimage to the 92,000-square-foot Shenandoah Country Club, whose walls are lined with mosaics and photos of the Iraqi villages from which Chaldeans trace their lineage. There, where club members smoke hookah and cigars and play backgammon or poker in a warren of rooms downstairs, politicians have courted wealthy Iraqi Christians at glitzy fund-raisers over the years as the community grows in political influence.
That’s why few Chaldeans anticipated that they would be swept into the crackdown on immigrants and Muslims Trump promised on the campaign trail, seeing safety in the affluence and political influence of many of their members.
That all changed one summer Sunday in 2017.
Crystal Kassab Jabiro felt like she hadn’t had a moment to herself all day. The middle school history teacher ferried her two kids to Chaldean Mass, then to her son’s last soccer game of the season, then to a First Communion party, and finally to her daughter’s piano recital. Exhausted, Jabiro logged onto Facebook when she finally made it back to her comfortable home in the western suburbs of Detroit Sunday evening. What she watched there sent a bolt of fear through her.
“Nobody’s applauding them for their criminal efforts. We know that they were criminals. But we have a system in place where you pay the time for the crime.”
Crystal Kassab Jabiro
“I saw all of these videos with people screaming and crying downtown at the federal building,” she recalled. “Crying after their loved ones.” Another video showed a line of Chaldeans waiting to get on a bus to be taken away to an ICE detention center, including a man with an IV still in his arm.
“I stared at all these videos in disbelief like, ‘Oh my God, it hit us,’ ” she said. “Everybody thought we were safe and we weren’t.”
The June 2017 raids largely targeted families who had arrived more recently to the United States, like the Slewos, who live on the east side in Madison Heights — far from the lush country club in West Bloomfield. But some Chaldeans like Jabiro, who are from more affluent families and did not personally know any deportees, nonetheless interpreted the arrests as an attack on the entire community. Carrying them out on a Sunday, Sabbath day for Christians, only deepened the insult.
Jabiro discovered some Chaldeans were gathering at a local charter school to provide legal assistance to the families affected by the raids and quickly volunteered her help.
“I left my kids by their grandma and I went down there and I didn’t come back home until like 2 o’clock in the morning,” Jabiro recalled. “I went every single day for like 11 days straight.”
Two years later, the shock of the initial roundup has worn off. But to Jabiro, a political moderate who voted for Trump in 2016 largely due to his stance on abortion, the way she sees the president has been changed forever.
“I think they felt like we’re going to be protected and Trump cares about us,” she said of the Chaldean community. “But I think in the end they got played, basically.”
She added: “I’m definitely not voting for Trump.”
Chaldeans are not united in that interpretation, however, and it’s unclear to what extent Trump’s support has dissipated in the community. Even members of Jabiro’s own family disagree with her and do not blame Trump for deporting Chaldeans, though they feel bad for their plight.
“Trump is just doing what the law is,” Jabiro’s father, Amir Kassab, 74, explained. “He can’t create a new law.”
Kassab said he plans to vote for Trump again if the economy continues to do well.
Anweya, the activist who attended a Trump rally in 2016, said she’s “very disappointed” in Trump, but still is praying that he changes his response to the Chaldeans before the election.
Other Chaldeans have brushed off the crackdown entirely because most of the affected people had committed a crime.
But Jabiro said those crimes don’t justify deportations that could lead to a death sentence.
“Nobody’s applauding them for their criminal efforts,” she explained. “We know that they were criminals. But we have a system in place where you pay the time for the crime.”
At the makeshift clearinghouse where Jabiro volunteered, Ashourina Slewo was finally able to find help for her father. A few days after he was picked up by ICE, she sat in her basement making calls to immigration attorneys. One told her that for $12,000, she could guarantee her father wouldn’t be deported. “I don’t even have $12,” she replied, and hung up. A few moments later, Ashourina woke up with her face pressed to the basement floor and realized she had passed out from the stress. In their brief phone calls, her father begged her to stop fighting his deportation, saying he would agree to be sent back to Iraq so that she wouldn’t have to find the money for his defense.
She told him no. “I would rather die than see my dad get deported,” Ashourina said.
She found free representation for her father through a nonprofit legal aid group set up by two Chaldean lawyers, Nadine Yousif and Nora Youkhana, and the American Civil Liberties Union won temporary relief for many Iraqis with a class-action suit that included the Slewos. With help from donations and a loan from Michigan’s Chaldean community, Ashourina was able to pay a $15,000 bond to free her father nine months after he was detained. Warda Slewo is home, and awaiting his court date in 2022. And though, as a noncitizen, he can’t vote anyway, he’s lost all his former affection for Trump.
“You see people with absolutely no skin in the game come out and help us,” Ashourina said. “This group of people have restored my faith in our community.”
But the reprieve is only temporary. The ACLU’s suit was recently overturned, and immigration judges have begun denying some Iraqi Christians’ appeals, unconvinced by their arguments that they will more likely than not face torture or death if they are deported. Chaldean community leaders, including Martin Manna, the head of the Chaldean Chamber of Commerce, attempted to use their political influence to lobby the Trump administration to ease up on the deportations, but to no avail. Two members of Congress from Michigan — Democratic Representative Andy Levin and Republican Representative John Moolenaar — have introduced legislation that would delay the deportations for two years, but it’s unclear if it will get a vote.
In August, a video began making its way around the Internet that revived the pain of the initial raids. Jimmy Aldaoud, a 41-year-old Chaldean Catholic who had never set foot in Iraq and spoke no Arabic, pleaded in a grainy cellphone video that he found himself alone and afraid on the streets of Iraq, without the insulin he needed to treat his diabetes, after he was deported by ICE last June.
“I begged them I said, ‘Please, I’ve never seen that country,’ ” Aldaoud says in the video. “I don’t understand the language. Nobody speaks English.”
A few days after the video went viral, the news broke among Michigan’s Chaldeans that Aldaoud had died, likely from complications with his diabetes and lack of insulin. Aldaoud had immigrated legally to the United States with his family as a baby, but did not go through the process of attaining citizenship and then committed crimes including theft, which put citizenship beyond reach.
For Ashourina, Aldaoud’s death was a disturbing presentiment of what could happen to her own father should he lose his court case in 2022.
“If my dad is deported, I’m going to plan a funeral without a body and that’s our reality,” she said. “That could be the reality of hundreds of others. And no one deserves that.”