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Syrian refugee dubbed "The Scientist" arrives in Michigan

Dec 18, 2015

Refaai Hamo, just after flying into Michigan
Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio

Late Thursday night, the Hamo family landed and walked into the florescent lights of Detroit Metro Airport to start a new chapter of their lives.

Refaai Hamo, a Syrian refugee, has been nicknamed 'The Scientist' after being profiled by the popular blog Humans of New York. His harrowing story went viral. Edward Norton helped raise over $450,000 for the family.

President Obama welcomed him on Facebook, writing “you’re part of what makes America great.”

This is the final step of a long journey that started in Damascus.

Just a handful of years ago, Refaai Hamo was an ambitious scientist.

He says he paid his way through his doctoral program by working construction at night. And he married a fellow student – she was a law student – and they built a life together.

“We were living safe,” said Hamo through an interpreter. “Especially when it comes to education, we almost had education for everybody in the region.”

But everything changed when civil war broke out in Syria and missiles ripped through the family’s home. The missiles killed Hamo's wife, his daughter, his brother and several other family members. One of his surviving children pulled pieces of the bodies from the rubble.

It was then that Hamo gathered up his remaining four children. Together, they fled to Turkey.

Refaai Hamo's son was also at the press conference, but stayed quiet.
Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio

But there, thing didn't get easier. For two years their refugee status prevented Hamo from getting a job. In the Humans of New York profile, he explains “there is a university here that is teaching with a book I wrote, but still won’t give me a job.” 

He also couldn’t get medical care. That was true even after he developed stomach cancer.

Sean De Four, who oversees refugee resettlement for Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, says that will change now that Refaai Hamo is in Michigan.

“The Henry Ford Hospital System has stepped forward and offered to help him with his care,” says De Four, who has arranged for Hamo to see a doctor within 24 hours of landing.  

De Four says that in addition to all the normal services provided to refugee families, the Hamo family will be connected with a financial advisor because of all the money that's poured in for the family.

But De Four is quick to point out that, despite all the publicity about The Scientist, he's seen lots of refugees who have also suffered greatly and also want to contribute.

“I think all of our refugees come with a very similar story and disposition,” de Four says.

But that hasn’t stopped the buzz in Troy. At a mall packed with holiday shoppers, almost everyone has heard of The Scientist’s impending arrival. 

Osborne Walker, who is retired from GM, says as long as the family has been vetted he'll welcome them.

“They got to go somewhere,” says Walker. “If we got the room for them, let them come on.”

But one woman, who wouldn't give her name, is concerned. She says America's already struggling to provide for its own poor and homeless.

“I think that we need to take care of our own. Our nation is trillions of dollars in debt and we don't need to be adding more to it,” she said.

The U.S. has been debating whether and how to accept Syrian refugees.

A bouquet of flowers awaited the Hamo family when they arrived in Michigan.
Credit Paula Friedrich / Michigan Radio

But Rami Jandali, who is from Syria and a dentist in the area, has some advice: “Don't listen to the news, that's what I would tell them.”

Jandali says this is a place where they will be able to rebuild their lives, and he urges them to integrate into the larger Michigan community and contribute.

“You survived. You're free now. Make the best out of it,” says Jandali.

That seems to be Refaai Hamo's plan too.

“If they will only call me a refugee and they will treat me as only a refugee. I don't want to be here. I would rather go back than be only a refugee,” says Refaai Hamo. “I want to be a good citizen here.”