Syrian refugee to be Obama’s State of the Union guest

Chad Livengood
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

The Syrian civil engineer whose story of escaping his war-torn homeland to resettle in Michigan caught the attention of President Barack Obama will be a special guest of the president during Tuesday’s State of the Union address, the White House announced Sunday.

Refaai Hamo, who arrived in Troy last month with his four children, will be seated in first lady Michelle Obama’s box in the U.S. House of Representatives’ chamber during the Democratic president’s final State of the Union speech to a joint session of Congress.

Hamo, 54, a son and three of his daughters survived a missile attack on their home in Afrin, Syria, two years ago that killed his wife and a daughter.

“Growing up in Syria, Refaai Hamo lived what seemed to be the kind of life associated with the American Dream — the son of a farmer and housewife, he worked construction at night to pay his way through college on his way to a Ph.D, married his college sweetheart and built a family together,” the White House said in Sunday’s announcement.

The family’s story of fleeing Syria and relocating to the United States after two years living as refugees in Turkey gained national attention when Hamo was featured in an article on the website of Humans of New York, which dubbed Hamo “The Scientist” in a seven-part photo essay.

Obama weighed in on Hamo’s plight in a Dec. 9 Facebook post that quickly went viral.

“As a husband and a father, I cannot even begin to imagine the loss you have endured. You and your family are an inspiration,” Obama said. “... I know that the great people of Michigan will embrace you with the compassion and support you deserve. Yes, you can still make a difference in the world, and we’re proud that you’ll pursue your dreams here. Welcome to your new home. You’re part of what makes America great.”

With the assistance of Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, Hamo and his family moved into a condo in Troy after arriving Dec. 17 at Detroit Metropolitan Airport as among the nation’s most celebrated Syrian refugees. Actor Edward Norton raised $463,335 for the family in a Crowdrise campaign.

The next day, in an exclusive interview with The Detroit News, Hamo said he wants to work toward becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen.

“I was born as a human and raised as a human but I have been in some situations that made me feel not like a human,” said Hamo, who holds a doctorate and was a civil engineer and consultant to corporations in Syria. “I want to give back. Otherwise, it isn’t worth anything.”

Hamo will be among Obama’s 23 special guests seated with the first lady; Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill Biden; and Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to the president.

One seat will be left vacant “for the victims of gun violence” as Obama continues his push for “common-sense” gun regulations, the White House said.

Each member of Congress is allowed to take one guest to the State of the Union and the Michigan delegation’s include teachers, community activists and University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh.

Harbaugh will be attending the speech as a guest of U.S. Reps. Debbie Dingell, D-Dearborn, and Justin Amash, R-Cascade Township.

Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy will be the guest of U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence, D-Southfield.

Obama’s eighth State of the Union address begins at 9 p.m. Tuesday.

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Detroit News Staff Writer Melissa Nann Burke contributed.