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Syrian refugee invited to Obama's state of union address

Hamo's moving story quickly went viral on social media [Humans of New York]

Date of publication: 10 January, 2016

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President Barack Obama has invited a Syrian refugee who recently arrived to the US to attend his final State of the Union address on Tuesday.

A newly arrived Syrian refugee with a harrowing story and a Muslim former US soldier will be among the White House invitees at President Barack Obama's final state of the union address on Tuesday.

The White House on Sunday announced the names of the guests invited to join Michelle Obama in the gallery of the House of Representatives when legislators, supreme court justices and other dignitaries assemble to hear the president lay out his chief goals for the year.  

A first lady's choice of guests to the closely watched address often underlines the president's priorities, and this year is no different.

One of the guests, Refaai Hamo, arrived in Detroit only on December 18 with his surviving children - three daughters and a son - after spending two years in Turkey.

He had fled Syria after a missile fired by Syrian government forces destroyed the complex where he and his family lived, the White House said. Hamo's wife, one of their daughters and five other family members perished. 

In Turkey, Hamo was diagnosed with stomach cancer. After being granted refugee status in the United States, he and his children are now trying to build a new life in Troy, Michigan, a Detroit suburb. 

The selection of Hamo is a stinging reply from the Obamas to those Republican members of Congress who, in a preliminary vote, sought to block Syrian refugees from entering the country, for fear that terrorists might slip in among them.

Also at Michelle Obama's side will be Naveed Shah, a Muslim and former US soldier, who was a child when his parents immigrated to the country from Pakistan. Shah joined the army in 2006 and served in Iraq. 

The symbolism there is also unmistakable, at a time when Donald Trump, the frontrunning Republican presidential candidate, has fanned anti-Muslim feelings among some Americans, proposing to temporarily ban all Muslims from the country.

One seat will be left vacant Tuesday in hommage to the victims of gun violence, at a time when Obama has been struggling against Republican opposition to tougher laws on gun ownership.

The symbolism there is also unmistakable, at a time when Donald Trump, the frontrunning Republican presidential candidate, has fanned anti-Muslim feelings among some Americans, proposing to temporarily ban all Muslims from the country.

Jim Obergefell, whose anti-discrimination suit led to the Supreme Court ruling last year that legalized same-sex marriages nationwide, will be among the guests.

Oscar Vazquez, who arrived as a child in the United States before voluntarily returning to Mexico as a young adult and struggling to finally obtain legal status in the United States, will underline Obama's support for regularizing millions of the undocumented.  

The other invitees include Sergeant Spencer Stone, who helped stop a terrorist attack on a train in France last year; Lisa Jaster, one of the first three women to graduate from the elite and arduous Ranger school of the US Army, and Satya Nadella, an Indian-born engineer who is a cricket aficionado, poet and the chief executive officer of Microsoft.

Hamo's story first became known when American blogger and photographer Brandon Stanton brought his story to the world through his Humans of New York blog and Facebook page.

First identified as 'the Syrian scientist', Hamo's moving story quickly went viral on social media, capturing the attention of hundreds of thousands of people.

Obama wrote him a welcome note in the comments section below his photo, part of seven posts telling his story.

"As a husband and a father, I cannot even begin to imagine the loss you've endured. You and your family are an inspiration," the President said. 

"I know that the great people of Michigan will embrace you with the compassion and support you deserve."

"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."

The scientists story also inspired many people to start crowdfunding campaigns to help him with living and medical expenses, including American actor Edward Norton, who raised more than $450,000 for him and his family. 

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