Syrian Refugee of ‘Humans of New York’ Fame Scores Seat at State of the Union

Refaai Hamo garnered support when he was featured in a viral Facebook post.
President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union address on Jan. 20, 2015. (Photo: Getty Images/Pool)
Jan 10, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Jennifer Swann is TakePart’s culture and lifestyle reporter.

When Syrian scientist Refaai Hamo was photographed last month as part of the popular documentary project Humans of New York, he knew little about his future in the United States except that he and his family had just been granted refugee status in Michigan.

Now, thanks to the viral photos shared on Facebook hundreds of thousands of times, the war survivor and newfound Internet celebrity will be getting a very high-profile welcome to his new country from none other than President Barack Obama.

Hamo has been invited by the White House to sit in First Lady Michelle Obama’s box in the House chamber during the State of the Union address Tuesday night. The gesture of support and solidarity with Syrian refugees comes less than two months after Republicans in Congress voted to block Syrian refugees from entering the United States, citing security risks. More than half of U.S. governors also support a plan to halt the resettlement of refugees.

FULL COVERAGE: The Global Refugee Crisis

“I felt that hope was revived as well as the strength to continue my dreams and ambition in my country,” Hamo said in a statement to USA Today. “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.”

Hamo’s seat isn’t the only one the president will be saving during his last State of the Union address. The First Lady’s box will hold one seat empty as a tribute to the victims of gun violence in the United States—an issue the president is expected to tackle during his speech. The address follows his executive action last week to increase background checks and mental health treatment as means of curbing gun violence. The White House has indicated that the president’s speech will also touch on climate change, health care, criminal justice reform, and LGBT rights.

Hamo’s life began to unravel when a pair of government antipersonnel missiles demolished a row of homes he’d built for his family, killing 16 people, including seven of his relatives. Fearing for his life, Hamo fled to Istanbul, where he spent two years struggling to support his family—Turkey is one of the countries in the Middle East that doesn’t allow refugees to work—while awaiting approval for refugee status in the United States.

His story of survival and perserverence struck a chord with thousands, including actor and activist Edward Norton, who launched a fund-raising campaign that garnered nearly half a million dollars for the Syrian refugee family. Obama chimed in last month to lend his support in a Facebook comment. “I know that the great people of Michigan will embrace you with the compassion and support you deserve,” he said. “Yes, you can make a difference in the world, and we’re proud that you’ll pursue your dreams here.”