Syrian family ends long journey to Detroit

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

Refaai Hamo, a Syrian civil engineer with a doctorate, arrived at Detroit Metropolitan Airport on Thursday night as the nation’s newest and most celebrated Syrian refugee, insisting he wants to be regarded as a citizen, not a refugee.

Refaai Hamo, center, 54,with his son Mohammad, left, 18, by his side talks to the media after arriving at Detroit Metro Airport from Syria.

Weary after a long journey, he was forceful about his mission: to be a contributor to this country, to use his knowledge and education.

Hamo fled Syria two years ago after missiles destroyed the top floor of his home, killing his wife and 14-year-old son. He’s spent two years in Turkey as an exile, trying to feed his family and win clearance to come to the United States.

A vivid photo essay on the website Humans of New York, where he was identified as “The Scientist,” drew international attention to the Hamo family. President Barack Obama praised Hamo’s spirit and dignity. Actor Edward Norton launched a Crowdrise online campaign that has raised almost $500,000 for Hamo – who has cancer – and his family.

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Hamo is being settled in Oakland County by Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, the state’s most active settler of refugees. The agency has helped about 1,800 refugees from around the world – including about 100 from Syria – move to Michigan in 2015. After Thursday night’s press conference, Hamo and his children were being escorted to a furnished home, its refrigerator already stocked.

Refaai Hamo, 54, waves at a press conference after arriving at Detroit Metro Airport from Syria.

Hamo, who arrived at the press conference about 10 p.m., only an hour after landing, deflected some questions about his education and career, saying that his degree is only meaningful if he can use it. “I want to be a good citizen here,” he said, again and again.

“We want to be like any citizens of any country. ... I was born as a human and raised as a human. I have been in some situations that made me feel not like a human,” he said through an interpreter.

The 54-year-old was presented with a gift basket full of Michigan products, including a can of Vernor’s.

Sean DeFour, vice president of social services for Lutheran Social Services, said the agency will provide financial planning experts to help Hamo manage his unusual financial situation, as well as enroll his children in school, provide transportation to medical appointments, and generally help the family “find peace, security and a sense of wholeness.”

Hamo’s arrival drew members of the Arab-American community, as well as a spokesman for Sen. Gary Peters, and at least two state officials.

The Hamo family meets with the media after arriving at Detroit Metro Airport from Syria Thursday.