Chaldean immigrant parents in Michigan die from coronavirus, leaving behind 3 kids

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Niraj Warikoo Detroit Free Press
About two years ago, Nada Naisan and her husband Nameer Ayram bought their first home in Sterling Heights.

The modest-sized house that Naisan loved to take care of was their piece of the American dream, in a city where many Iraqi-Americans Christians have settled in recent years.

In 2012, the couple and their three children had escaped persecution from ISIS in Iraq as minority Christians. After years of struggle, the refugees found steady work in Michigan, while raising their family in a new world. 

But now, both parents are dead from the coronavirus, leaving behind their children, ages 13, 18, and 20. 

Naisan died at the age of 46 on April 21 at Ascension Macomb-Oakland Hospital in Warren and her husband, Ayram, died three weeks later on May 11 at the age of 52 at University Hospital in Ann Arbor, according to family friend Zeana Attisha. Neither of them had serious medical problems before they became infected with the coronavirus, Attisha said this week. 

“It’s a tough situation for the children to be in, very hard,” said Attisha, who manages the Sahara Restaurant chain in metro Detroit. “It’s really a shame.”

Their deaths have affected their children and family around the world, from France to Iraq. In metro Detroit, Chaldeans, who are Iraqi Catholics, have rallied to support the family, with Troy-based United Community Family Services/Chaldean American Ladies of Charity helping with finances and other assistance for the children. A GoFund me account set up by Attisha to help them has raised more than $210,000 as of Wednesday. The Chaldean Ladies group has also set up a fundraising effort. 

The late Nada Naisan (right) and her husband Nameer Ayram, of Sterling Heights, stand in front of a Christmas tree in 2015. The parents of three children were Iraqi Chaldean refugees who died from the coronavirus. Naisan died on April 21, 2020, and Ayram died 3 weeks later on May 11.
Ayram family
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“The Chaldean community was devastated to hear of this loss,” said Jane Shallal, president of United Community Family Services/Chaldean American Ladies of Charity. “The Chaldean community, and many others outside the community, have been very generous in providing monetary donations to assist these children with living expenses to help them through this tragedy.”

Both of them arrived by ambulance on March 22 at Ascension Macomb-Oakland Hospital in Warren, said family members. They struggled for weeks as their organs were ravaged by the virus, ripping through their lungs, shutting down their kidney functions.

At one point, Ayram, the father, looked like he might recover, able to wiggle his toes and nod his head, but he succumbed after weeks on a ventilator at University Hospital in Ann Arbor. He had been transferred to the hospital for a treatment known as proning, Attisha said.

From Iraq to Michigan
Born in Iraq, Naisan earned an engineering degree and lived with her husband in Baghdad. They had a decent life, but after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, their lives — like those of many in Iraq — were upended. The rise of extremist groups like ISIS threatened the lives of many minorities and moderates in Iraq.

They moved to the city of Duhok, a diverse area in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. And then in 2012, they were admitted into the U.S., part of a wave of Iraqi Christian refugees in Michigan. 

Ayram worked at AGS Automotive Systems, an auto supply company while Naisan was mostly a homemaker, helping raise three children, Attisha said. 

Ayran was the first to have symptoms of COVID-19. He tested positive, receiving a letter in the mail from Macomb County that “told him to stay in the house,” Attisha said, recalling her interactions with the family over the past few months. 

It’s unclear if the mother or father was infected by the coronavirus first or where they got it. 

The home is small and so Naisan may have picked it up from her husband, she said. 

Nada, 46, and Nameer Ayram, 52, of Sterling Heights, are currently hospitalized with complications from the coronavirus. They are refugees from Iraq who came to Michigan about 8 years ago. Their three children are struggling to survive without their parents at home.
Ayram family
After having breathing problems, Naisan drove herself on March 19th to Beaumont Hospital in Troy. Her son, Nash, drove behind her in a separate car. 

Through the speaker phone on her cell phone while sitting in her car, she told the hospital: I can’t breathe and my husband has the virus. 

“But they didn’t take her,” Attisha said. “I don’t know why. … They should have guided her towards the emergency room.”

At one point, after Naisan had told the hospital she had been cleaning her home with Clorox, a hospital worker said maybe that’s why she had breathing problems, Attisha said. 

The hospital gave her and her son a piece of paper that said “COVID-19 Curbside Screening Guidelines,” but did not admit them.

Ambulance takes parents to hospital
Naisan then drove home after being denied admission. An ambulance would take her three days later to another hospital after her breathing problems continued.

“I felt like there was three days missed,” Attisha said. “Maybe they could have treated her earlier instead of going home.”

In a statement, Beaumont spokesman Mark Geary said: “COVID-19 hit Southeastern Michigan particularly hard. As patients came to Beaumont for care during the height of the surge, we did all we could to evaluate, triage and care for patients based on the information we knew at the time. We grieve the loss of any patient to COVID-19 or any other illness.”

Three days later, on March 22, as her breathing problems continued, an ambulance took her to the Warren campus of Ascension Macomb-Oakland Hospital. Within 24 hours, another ambulance took her husband to the same hospital, Attisha said.

Meanwhile, Nash and his 18-year-old sister got sick with coronavirus symptoms, Attisha said. 

Language was an issue for her and her husband in communicating with doctors.

While they knew some English, an Arabic speaker would have helped, Attisha said. Naisain’s uncle in France is a doctor and he helped in phone calls translate at times for her while she was in the hospital, telling her what her doctors wanted to communicate, Attisha said.

A tube was placed in her nose at one point, but she still had problems breathing, Attisha said, describing Nash’s account of talking with her mother while she was in the hospital.

“‘I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe,’ she kept telling her son,” Attisha said.  

After kidney failure, she was put in dialysis and also put on a ventilator. Aside from being a little overweight, she had no health problems, Attisha said.

Nash and the older sister were able to visit their mother only one time, shortly before she died. Dressed with personal protective equipment like head covers and plastic shields, they were able to see her one at a time before she died on April 21.

Nash Ayram, 20, of Sterling Heights, lost both of his parents to the coronavirus. He has two younger sisters, 18 and 13.
Ayram family
A funeral was held a few day later at. St. Joseph Chaldean Church in Troy. Funeral visitors couldn’t enter the church, the casket stayed in the hearse, and “no one could get out of their cars,” Attisha said. 

Meanwhile, the father was transfered to University Hospital in Ann Arbor to get proning, where the patient is placed face down on the bed to help them breathe better. He was also able to get convalescent plasma therapy at the Ann Arbor hospital, Attisha said. 

As with his wife, he had difficulty at times communicating with hospital staff because he didn’t know English that well. Attisha said she “begged them every day” for an Arabic speaker. She said the hospital told her their Arabic speaker wasn’t available in that side of the hospital. 

He would respond when his sister talked to him by phone in Arabic, Attisha said. 

“One time, the sister called him on Facetime … put phone close to his ear and he responded by moving his toes,” she said. 

A spokesperson for Michigan Medicine, which oversees University Hospital, did not comment on this case, but said their hospitals do provide interpretation services.

“Michigan Medicine provides extensive, free interpreter services with 44 staff interpreters, 18 contract sign language interpreters and a pool of 13 temporary interpreters,” said Mary Masson, spokeswoman for Michigan Medicine. “Our team provides interpreter services for more than 70 languages, including Arabic. We recognize the impact of culture and language on health care delivery and make this service a priority.”

For a brief time, he seemed to be getting better in the week before he died, responding with movements of parts of his body. 

“The dad definitely fought it to the last second,” she said. “It’s incredible how the virus took over and caused so much damage.”

A funeral was held for him also at St. Joseph in Troy and also in Iraq, where he has relatives. 

Now, the children are facing life on their own. Attisha and others in the Chaldean community are helping them with legal counsel, finances, counseling form clergy, and how to access potential benefits like unemployment or Medicaid. 

Nash is focused on helping his younger sisters and intends to stay in the home of their parents. 

“He wants to take care of his sisters and keep the house with his sisters,” Attisha said. “He says: ‘This is my parents’ home. I’m not going to leave this house. My mom loved this house.”