President Obama has invited a Syrian refugee to sit in the first lady's box for the State of the Union address on Tuesday, the White House said Sunday.
The symbolic gesture to invite Refaai Hamo, 55, who fled Syria in 2013 and was cleared by U.S. authorities to arrive in Detroit last month, comes as the president has sought to counter Republican calls to bar Muslim refugees in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif. Hamo, a scientist, will sit in Michelle Obama's box along with other guests who represent the president's priorities.
USA Today first reported on Hamo's invitation. The White House confirmed it Sunday in releasing a list of 23 guests who represent the policy priorities the president has championed in his seven years in office. Connecticut Gov. Daniel Malloy (D), whose state raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour, Microsoft chief executive Satya Nadella, who immigrated to the United States, Spencer Stone, a U.S. Air Force staff sergeant who helped with two other Americans foil a terrorist attack on a French train, and Major Lisa Jaster, the third female Army reservist to graduate from the elite Ranger School, will be among the guests. One seat in the first lady's box will be left empty to represent victims of gun violence.
Hamo's wife and daughter were killed when a bomb struck his family's home, prompting him to flee in 2013 to Turkey, before attempting to enter the United States. He and his four surviving children now live in Detroit, and his ordeal was featured in a popular blog, Humans of New York.
"If they will only call me a refugee.... I don't want to be here. I want to be a good citizen," Hamo said at a news conference at the airport when he arrived.
Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump has proposed banning all Muslims from entering the country after the recent terrorists attacks, inspired by the Islamic State militant group. Other GOP candidates also have suggested banning Syrian refugees. Obama and Democratic candidates, including front-runner Hillary Clinton, have called such proposals contrary to American values.
"As a husband and a father, I cannot even begin to imagine the loss you've endured," Obama said on the Humans of New York Facebook post. "You and your family are an inspiration. 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."