Over the last century, Assyrians have experienced waves of persecution and genocide followed by worldwide migration, with a large population of these Iraqi Christians settling in Michigan. People in this religious and socially conservative group have made a home for themselves among Metro Detroit's diverse immigrant community and often align themselves with Republican Party values and candidates. While some have escaped the hardships from their homelands, finding comfort and stability in the United States, many Assyrians in Detroit recently faced another threat: deportation.
Wisam Naoum, a Chaldean Catholic Assyrian, is one of the main organizers working to protect the hundreds of Assyrians in Michigan facing deportation. The 29-year-old has been a key voice for Detroit's Assyrians detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the summer of 2017.
Assyrian is a term used to represent the now nationless people's ethnicity, and the term Chaldean commonly represents the group's affiliation with the Catholic Church. They are sometimes grouped with Arabs, but that's a distinction Assyrians try to make. While many Assyrians learn to speak Arabic at a young age, their mother tongue is Aramaic, which is similar in sound to Hebrew with its "khh's" and other difficult throaty tones.
The ICE detainments of Assyrians began June 11, 2017, but Naoum saw warning signs much earlier. "I rang the alarm bell in May, and people laughed at me," Naoum says. He noticed Arab immigrants were becoming a larger focus for the Trump administration, which was enacting the immigration ban for majority-Muslim countries; he also noticed Iraq was left off the second ban list and wondered what bargaining chip was used to remove it.
Naoum began receiving phone calls and texts early on that June day, while he was at a family barbecue, and it wasn't long before Naoum took action. With a group of fellow organizers that included lawyers and educators, Naoum met and began collecting information from the detainees' family members. "Through our experience over the years dealing with the crisis in the homeland, we had the toolkit to handle this and priority number one was to organize," Naoum says.
The group worked tirelessly to gather all of the information they could, both from the detainees and from organizations like the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Naoum was tasked with convincing the Assyrian community, a very conservative group whose members mostly voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, to work with and trust the ACLU, a historically liberal organization that already has taken over 100 legal actions against the Trump administration. In addition to finding legal aid for the Assyrian detainees, the group has secured therapists and trauma counselors for the families of detainees.
"They were trying to deport everyone the first week, so as far as we were concerned, as long as we could delay all of that, we were doing something right," Naoum says. Naoum and his fellow organizers not only delayed the deportations, they eventually won a stay for all of the detainees, meaning no one would have to leave until their legal case was resolved. This was a huge victory for the organizers, and Naoum, with the ACLU, continued the battle to extend the stay on a national level, protecting all Assyrians throughout the United States. "We found out from the ACLU that if we didn't get that national stay, ICE would have deported 80 people the next day," Naoum explains.
Of the 1,400 Assyrians in danger of deportation, roughly 300 were detained in the weeks after June 11. While some have since been released, Margo Schlanger, a law professor at the University of Michigan and litigator working with the ACLU on the case, estimates 130 people were either denied bond or could not afford their bond and were still being detained. An additional 20 have yet to reach the six-month mark and will receive a bond hearing at that time.
Naoum's awakening to political activism emerged from tragedy and consequence.
In 2007, two Assyrians were riding a bus from Baqubah to Baghdad when they were stopped by militia and pulled off the bus. Because the men were carrying Christian identification cards, they were immediately assassinated and left behind on a dusty road. One of their neighbors happened to be on the bus at the time and notified the family. Naoum recounts this story to me, pausing periodically, still in disbelief 11 years later. The men were his cousins, and Naoum had just started college at Wayne State University in Detroit. "After that, we struggled hard to get the rest of the family to the United States," Naoum says. "That was a turning point for me."
Had the neighbor not been on the bus, it's unclear whether his family would ever have been notified or if Naoum would have ended up as the activist and organizer he is today.
Similar to the story about his cousins, Naoum speaks about other events that have cumulatively shaped his understanding of politics and fueled his desire to activate his community. There was a time in his high school cafeteria when he spoke out against the war in Iraq only to be reprimanded by a teacher and threatened with suspension. When he was a sixth-grader, a bus driver had difficulty pronouncing his name, so he started going by the name "Peter." These stories may otherwise seem unremarkable, but for Naoum, they were turning points and signifiers of his ability to go between the two worlds in which he lived: one world, where he was an active participant in his community -- attending Chaldean Catholic Church every weekend with his family -- and the other, where he was a child growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood.
"I can handle different environments no matter what I'm walking into," Naoum says. "I have two ways to approach a problem; the way my family would approach a problem or the way everyone around me at school would solve a problem."
Naoum's most recent social effort is the co-founding of SurayeSwipe, a dating app launched in May 2017 and designed with Assyrian values and rituals in mind. While his social and political pursuits may appear disparate, Naoum seems to place an equal importance on ethnic preservation and social assimilation.
Children of immigrants often have to perform a delicate balancing act between assimilating to American culture and staying connected to their heritage. This can lead to feelings of otherness and not belonging, but Naoum seems to have excelled as an intermediary. While studying political science at Wayne State University, Naoum cofounded an organization with a friend to help other immigrants and children of immigrants living in the Detroit area reconnect with their heritage. The group, E'rootha, offered Aramaic language classes for college credit as well as dance classes and organized art shows for the Assyrian community. It offered Naoum a chance to begin making a name for himself in the community.
"The older community members started to invite me to events where diplomats and politicians were coming in," Naoum says, "that gave me the opportunity to start dealing with our issues in the homeland, in terms of fighting for a province for our people in Nineveh."
After completing law school at the University of Michigan, Naoum went to work in finance law, a surprising shift for a grassroots organizer. The move allowed Naoum focus completely on his career and pay back student loans.
In 2014, while living in Chicago, Naoum was invited to speak for the Assyrian Genocide Remembrance Day in Michigan. He had a speech prepared to commemorate that day and its history but began receiving frantic phone calls from friends and acquaintances about an ISIS attack on Assyrian villages in Iraq. To Naoum, the timing of the attack was no coincidence; he saw this as a warning sign by ISIS to deplete the Assyrian villages and the Christian people who lived in them. "We had been fighting to get protective police force for Assyrians forever ... it's not a coincidence that ISIS struck on genocide remembrance day," he says.
The attack was a wake-up call for Naoum, who began working on moving back to Sterling Heights, the Detroit suburb where he had grown up. Naoum made the move in early 2017, initially thinking he'd find work in finance law similar to what he was doing in Chicago. But the deportation crisis turned him into a voice for the Assyrians in need and for left-leaning members of that community. In an effort to continue representing his people, Naoum announced his run as a Michigan State representative in February 2018.
When asked why he is so willing to fight for the underdog, Naoum seemed taken aback, but he wrote me a short while after with another detailed account of a time when, as a freshman in high school, he was being bullied when an upperclassman "put his arm around me and told everyone to back off," Naoum says. "I was so grateful. He didn't have to do it, but he saw how sad I was and did something about it. Objectively, it wasn't a heroic act by any normal measure, but to me it was. No one picked on me after that. That showed me that all it takes to save someone is to step in and do or say something. The rest will fall into place."