Who Is Refaai Hamo, Michelle Obama's SOTU Guest? The Syrian Refugee Is A Familiar Face For Many
On Tuesday night, President Obama will deliver his last State of the Union address, using it to touch on the relevant issues of the last year. Every year, the first lady invites a group of extraordinary — and sometimes ordinary — people who embody these topics to sit in the viewing box with her to watch the address. Among First Lady Michelle Obama's 23 guests this year is a man whose story you might have heard elsewhere. Who is Refaai Hamo? You may have seen the Syrian refugee featured on Humans of New York last month as "The Scientist."
After a year in which presidential candidate Donald Trump has tainted the country with his disturbing brand of xenophobia, President Obama is expected to deliver a very different message. One way he will do that is by honoring Hamo, a Syrian refugee who escaped the war with his son and three daughters to seek a better life in Troy, Michigan. In December, Humans of New York posted photos of Hamo, along with his own words describing what he hopes to achieve in his new life in America.
President Obama responded to Hamo's story in a Facebook comment, writing, "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."
In an email statement sent Sunday, Michelle Obama said that she wanted to invite Hamo to the SOTU because "That kind of passion and perseverance are at the heart of this great country." Hamo's "passion and perseverance" are even more remarkable when considering the unspeakable tragedy and personal hardships he's faced. He lost seven of his family members in a missile strike near his home in Afrin, Syria, including his wife and one daughter. "Our marriage wasn’t arranged," he told HONY of his wife. "We married out of love."
Shortly after, Hamo and his son and three daughters fled to Turkey, where life barely improved. Hamo was diagnosed with stomach cancer, which he thinks was caused by his "sadness and stress" after the bombing. Because he could not work without a residence permit, he did not have health insurance to get treated.
My friend in America tells me that it’s an easy surgery, but I’m fighting against time. It’s spreading, and I think that soon it will move beyond my stomach. And then there’s nothing I can do.
Prior to fleeing Syria, Hamo had been a prominent scientist, with a PhD in engineering. He told HONY that even though there was a university in Turkey that was teaching one of his books in an engineering class, the university refused to give him a job. In order to make a living, Hamo resorted to creating construction designs for a minuscule fraction of what Turkish citizens get paid.
Luckily, Hamo, his son, and his three daughters were recently granted refugee status, and relocated to Troy on Dec. 18. Upon learning of his story, actor Edward Norton was deeply moved, and decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign, raising more than $450,000 to help set Hamo and his family up with a home in Michigan, as well as health services to treat his cancer.
In many ways, Hamo is the perfect counter to Trump's cynical rhetoric about immigrants and refugees, because he's a reminder of what actually makes America great. In response to the White House's invitation, Hamo said in a statement:
I am so proud and honored to be in this country and look forward to one day becoming an American citizen, so that we can be part of making America a strong [and] great country.