‘Scientist,’now in Metro Detroit: ‘I want to give back’

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

On Day One of his new life in the United States, Refaai Hamo balances his words as if they fill a dainty teacup.

Refaai Hamo, with his son Mohammad, says, “As an educated person, I know how great, how generous people in America are.” Friday was the first day for his family in their new home.

He is “The Scientist,” a man who has touched hearts around the world with the tragedy of his life and his determination to contribute to society, the world around him. He is also a refugee, a word that makes him uncomfortable with its connotations of homelessness and need.

“Refugee” is the word he does not want applied to him. Yet it clings to him, in every media clip, even in the press releases from Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, the organization charged with settling the Hamo family. He’s gained national attention on the website Humans of New York, drawn praise from President Barack Obama and inspired an online fundraising campaign by actor Edward Norton.

On this first morning, during an exclusive interview with The Detroit News in the Oakland County condominium where he will live for the foreseeable future, he is hopeful but hesitant. His children — three daughters and a son who survived a missile attack on their home in Afrin, Syria, two years ago — are suffering: They lost their mother and a sister in that attack, as their home, their world, crumbled to dust and debris.

Syrian family ends long journey to Detroit

They do not imagine they are home free, in their sunny new home. The word on America in their war-torn land is mixed.

Hamo, a civil engineer and consultant to corporations in his former life, grew up in a rural area, the son of a farmer. But he latched onto books early, and worked construction jobs — anything he could find — to attend college and, eventually, earn his doctoral degree.

“Education” is the word he prizes, the word a translator repeats, again and again.

Refaai Hamo was featured on the website Humans of New York as “The Scientist” in a seven-part photo essay.

In Turkey, where his family landed with a suitcase and tears, he felt as if he had lost all he fought so hard for.

In Turkey, he said, Syrian doctors, lawyers and other professionals are being left to die slowly, under-employed, unable to contribute to the best of their ability.

He doesn’t want to endure that kind of slow, inner death here.

He intends to learn English. His head is full of ideas he can’t bear to part with quite yet, until he better understands what might be possible in these United States.

For now, he has reason to hope. Obama himself paid tribute to Hamo, after the website Humans of New York featured him as “The Scientist” in a seven-part photo essay that depicted him as what he is, a dignified man, proud and determined. Obama’s public statements, saluting Hamo’s family as “part of what makes America great,” reassured him about the American people.

On Friday, the Lutheran Social Services staff was readying the family for an array of appointments, everything from visiting the Social Security office to undergoing a health screening. Hamo, who loves life and people, is prepared to do whatever it takes to achieve citizenship — not as a formality but as a form of engagement with his new country.

“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,” he says. Behind him is a wide-screen digital TV, under his feet are polished wood floors and a thick wool rug. His new home, owned by a Syrian family, is in an affluent neighborhood.

But Refaai Hamo knows better than to trust the certainty of a couch the color of Turkish coffee, of brick and mortar. At 54, he still desperately wants to make his hopes and dreams come true: “I want to give back,” he says, almost pleading. “Otherwise, it isn’t worth anything.”

He’s had two hours of sleep in 24 hours. He’s been at a press conference, moved into a strange new residence, reassured his children about the life unfolding. He wants America to give him a chance to prove himself as a person, not as a refugee with special privileges.

“I know the American people are good people,” he says. “As an educated person, I know how great, how generous people in America are.”

He has seen the generous side — the president’s welcome, the donations. But he has seen his Kurdish homeland destroyed in a ferocious war. Even he is not sure which side bombed his home.

People are people, for good and ill.

America beckons to the Hamo family, five weary travelers who have lost homeland, wife and mother, daughter and sister. Whether they will find the America symbolized by the Statue of Liberty, or by the anti-immigrant rhetoric so in vogue this election year, is an open question. Even we aren’t certain which America we live in.

(313) 222-2032