Spotlight: Tiara Shaya On Her Iraqi-American Uncle’s Imminent Deportation To Iraq
Nahidh Shaou came to the United States with his family when he was 5 years old. As part of a small Christian minority in Iraq, called Chaldean Christians, his family traces its lineage back to Abraham. The family came to the United States for a better life and to flee the religious persecution prevalent in the region, Shaou’s niece, Tiara Shaya told Worldview’s Jerome McDonnell.
Shaou enlisted in the U.S. Army when he turned 17 — before he became a U.S. citizen, Shaya said. After his military service, during which he served at the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), Shaya says he faced Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on top of the pressures of family life.
According to Shaya, her uncle’s circumstances caused him to “snap” when he returned to the U.S. He robbed a restaurant, wounding an officer. That crime put him behind bars for 34 years, during which he served as a “model inmate,” Shaya said. However, the crime made him eligible for deportation back to Iraq. He is now awaiting deportation in a detention facility in Louisiana.
Tiara Shaya joined Worldview to talk more about her uncle’s case and how she thinks President Donald Trump’s travel ban could endanger the lives of American residents of Iraqi descent.
On how her uncle lost his legal status
Tiara Shaya: My uncle was 17 when he joined the U.S. military, actually. A lot of people don’t know that noncitizens can join the military. Before the Vietnam War, they could actually be drafted, and many were. My uncle, when he was overseas, a lot of hard things happened in his life. His father passed away. When he came home for the funeral his mother got breast cancer and survived, but my uncle was the only son in the family and had seven sisters and he was really in charge of taking care of everyone. And under the weight of all of that pressure and those circumstances and his PTSD and depression from serving on the Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), he snaps and robbed a restaurant and wounded an officer, and that crime put him in jail for a very long sentence of 34 years, which he served as a model inmate. He got a paralegal associate’s degree, several educational certificates, was released on parole on his first time. But because of that crime, that made him eligible for deportation and that took away his green card. And ironically, when he was eighteen, he applied for citizenship, but when he was deployed to Korea, that put it on hold. He would’ve likely had his citizenship if he had not served in our military.
On how her uncle’s Chaldean Christian background will affect him if he returns to Iraq
Shaya: Of the 1,400 Iraqi nationals that are scheduled for deportation to Iraq, 350 of them are actually Chaldean Christians like my uncle. In reality it’s a death sentence for Iraqi Chaldean Christians. This is a country where ISIS is committing genocide against Chaldean Christians for their faith, for their Chaldean ethnicity, for their perceived ties to the U.S., for their loyalty to the U.S. This is a country where Christians are escaping and fleeing as refugees. There used to be 1.5 million Chaldeans in Iraq and now estimates are around less than 300,000. And they’re all in pockets that are considered a little bit more safe, in the Kurdish territory. This is a place where even last week, Vice President [Mike] Pence was a keynote speaker at the first ever World Summit In Defense of Christians and he called the situation in Iraq against Christians “genocide,” but yet our own government would send 350 Chaldean Christians back to a country where genocide is occurring on the basis of their faith.
On what Nahidh Shaou’s situation might be if he were deported
Shaya: Besides being a Chaldean Christian, my uncle has a really exceptional case. He doesn’t speak Arabic, because he came here when he was 5 and and the mother tongue of Chaldeans is actually Chaldean Aramaic, the same language that Jesus spoke. So he speaks English as his best language, a little bit of Chaldean, but no Arabic. And he wouldn’t speak Chaldean in Iraq because that would obviously be a marker that he’s a Chaldean Christian. In addition to that, he hasn’t been there since he was 5, he doesn’t remember the country at all. All of our family has left through different waves of immigration and especially in 2014, the very last of our family left as a result of ISIS killing Christians in the country.
My uncle also is a military veteran — he served for the U.S. Army from 1979 to 1981 — and that would be considered treason in Iraq. He’ll be seen as an American and that’s going to put him in danger. We remember the Iraqi translators for the U.S. Army, and they were supposed to be given some special consideration because we knew that that would put their lives in danger. In a similar way, my uncle’s life is in danger for serving our country, for being a patriot to our country and joining even when he wasn’t a citizen. Likewise, the Iraqi government has actually told Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), “Do not send Mr. Nahidh Shaou to our country because we can’t prove that he was ever an Iraqi citizen.” Because he left when he was 5, his paperwork was under his parents so there’s no documentation of him as a citizen, and they said that if you send him, we won’t give him ID and we won’t give him travel documents. And in Iraq, you need to have an ID for anything you do. You can’t even move within the country without an ID because there are checkpoints everywhere.
So he would be dropped in the middle of Baghdad, no Arabic, no paperwork, he doesn’t know any family, he doesn’t know the country, and he’s vulnerable as a Christian, as an ethnic minority, and essentially as an American just without paperwork. As the lawyer said it, he wouldn’t last a month. It’s essentially a death sentence. It’s not a normal deportation where someone can go back and just live the rest of their life outside of the US. This is something where when I talk with him for the final time before we thought he would be deported, I felt like I was saying goodbye. I felt like my uncle was on death row and he was dying the next day.
On what she thinks about her uncle’s criminal status affecting his eligibility for deportation
Shaya: My uncle did commit a crime, but if we look in context, he was about 20 years old, he was suffering from PTSD because he was serving this country in the military. He had horrible family circumstances going on, and he’s a changed man now. That was 34 years ago, he was a model citizen, he was a model inmate, several degrees, he wants to just contribute to society. He was a kid back then, so I don’t consider my uncle to be in that category that the president talks about.
But regardless, there are certain categories of people, when genocide is happening in a country, regardless of whatever you’ve done in the past, it doesn’t give the right for a country to deport someone to their death. And this is within the United Nations Convention Against Torture which the U.S. is a party to, and we legally should not be sending people to their death, where we know that they will be persecuted and targeted. And the reasoning that the U.S. gives for why this doesn’t apply, is that it has to be the state itself, it has to be Iraq itself that would be targeting my uncle, and because they don’t consider ISIS or the many militias a state, that it somehow doesn’t count. So they’re using the semantics of what a state is, to say the convention against torture does not apply, and it’s shameful to be because I don’t think that we should be deporting Christians to a country where they will face genocide, and our own government has said that they do face genocide, but also I don’t think we should be deporting veterans. If you’re good enough for the uniform, and you serve this country, you’re willing to die for this country, and we deport you the minute you’re no longer of use, it’s not honorable.
On his immediate detention after being released from prison
Shaya: His sentence ended September 2016, and he was never released into society. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement picked him up and held him for 180 days. On day 181, they issued him a final order for deportation and they transferred him from Michigan — which is where’s he’s a resident — to Louisiana in preparation for deportation. And there actually haven’t been any deportation flights to Iraq since 2010 because Iraq wasn’t accepting them. But Prime Minister [Haider al-] Abadi of Iraq, in his first visit with Trump, they actually made a deal, and the reason why Iraq was removed from the second travel ban is in exchange for accepting deportees again. So my uncle was going to be on the first plane back to Iraq, and that would have left on April 18th, but he was actually granted an emergency stay from the Board of Immigration Appeals, and was not sent back on that first plane.
On the current state of Shaou’s case
Shaya: Technically ICE is supposed to be able to hold you for 180 days. And then they should either deport you or release you, and actually last week my uncle had a hearing to be able to release him from ICE custody pending the deportation because we’re still trying to fight this deportation on the grounds that he will be targeted, and he currently has an emergency stay from the board of immigration appeals, but that’s a temporary solution and he was denied release out of ICE custody on the grounds that ICE is going to send him shortly. What we found out during that court hearing is that there’s currently no plane scheduled back to Iraq. Before, there were two planes that were scheduled one week after the next, and only one plane has gone so we are taking that as a sign that there’s some type of review going on about the situation. We were trying to argue that you can’t hold my uncle indefinitely, there’s not even a plane scheduled, they said that it’s not going to happen until the next few months, and he doesn’t have a deportation date. But it was denied and we’re going to try again if he’s not deported in the next few months.
On the argument that the law deports people, not a presidential administration
Shaya: Deportation is not a punishment, it is a policy, and the policy can be changed. As we’ve seen just recently the policy was changed so that people with minor offenses like DUIs can be deported and that didn’t use to be the case before. The U.S. government is not bound to deport someone. When my uncle was sentenced, it wasn’t, “You have 34 years and life, and then afterwards you get deported.” There are two separate items. This is not something that has to occur. Our hands are not tied here.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. It was produced by Steve Bynum and edited by Vera Tan. Click the 'play' button to listen to the entire interview.
This interview originally aired on WBEZ's Worldview on May 15, 2017.