Refaai Hamo, a Syrian refugee whose story came to public attention after he was featured on popular photo blog Humans of New York, is one of 23 guests the White House invited to sit in the First Lady’s box during President Obama’s final State of the Union address.
Hamo eventually settled in the Detroit area after a crowdfunding effort led by helped him move from Turkey.
Here’s what you need to know:
1. He Fled Syria After His Wife and Daughter Died in a Missile Attack
Hamo, 55, lost his wife, a son, and three daughters in a missile strike on their home in Afrin, Syria, during the ongoing Syrian Civil War. In the immediate aftermath of the strike, his surviving son was forced to carry his sister’s remains out of the devastated building to protect it from looters. Hamo, his son, and three daughters left Syria for Turkey afterward. Upon arrival in Turkey, Hamo was diagnosed with stomach cancer, but was unable to seek treatment due to a lack of health insurance. Two years later, his US visa was approved, and he settled in Troy, Michigan.
The strike came as part of the Syrian Civil War, which has claimed more than 250,000 lives since March 2011 and pits international terror group ISIS against forces led by current president Bashar al-Assad and multiple other factions; Hamo is unsure which side conducted the strike against his home, though the White House attributed the attack to the Syrian government. In addition to the toll from fighting, thousands are losing their lives to hunger. Hamo indicates particular problems for Syrian intellectuals, who “die slowly, under-employed” because they’re unable to work in their specialties in war-ravaged conditions.
2. He’s a Ph.D. Engineer, but Couldn’t Work in Previous Stops
Hamo worked his way through a doctoral program in engineering in Syria by taking construction jobs at night. Hamo met and married his wife, a law student, while she attended the same university. Prior to the war, Hamo enjoyed a prolific scientific career: before coming to the United States, he noted that even though he was unable to get a teaching job in Turkey, a university there was using one of the books he’d written in its engineering classes.
In the Humans of New York spotlight, Hamo mentioned several ideas he hoped to get more time to research and patent upon arrival in America, including a plane that can fly more than 48 hours before refueling and a device to predict earthquakes. Since his arrival, he has dedicated himself to “giving back” through his scientific ideas.
3. Edward Norton raised
When actor Edward Norton learned of Hamo’s story through Humans of New York, it “moved him to tears”. Said Norton of Hamo:
This man has suffered profound loss that would crush the spirit of many people and yet he still passionately wants a chance to contribute positively to the world. If we don’t welcome people like this into our communities and empower his dream of making an impact with his life, then we’re not the country we tell ourselves we are.
Norton’s fundraiser through crowdfunding website Crowdrise raised more than $450,000 for Hamo’s relocation, helping Michigan area nonprofit Lutheran Social Services to find the Hamo family a home with a local Syrian-American family and begin setting them up with government services and health screenings, critical to getting the family on their feet and treating Hamo’s cancer.
4. The President Welcomed Him to America on Social Media
Upon seeing the initial photo essay, President Obama was moved to comment from his personal Facebook account on Hamo’s plight:
In a statement released by the White House, Hamo said of the President’s response:
I was thrilled when I heard that President Barack Obama is welcoming us into the United States. I felt that hope was revived, as well as the strength to continue my dreams and ambition in my new country. 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 a great [sic] country.
5. Several Other Invitees Represent a Hot-Button Political Issue
The White House officially extended 24 invitations to sit with the First Lady at the State of the Union address, several of which can be seen in the YouTube video above (Hamo’s invitation starts at 0:18). Just as Hamo’s invitation comes at a time when most GOP Presidential candidates favor limiting Syrian refugees in America, other Presidential invitations highlight contentious issues, notably: