When Dr. Rafaai Hamo was featured on the popular photography website Humans of New York in December of 2015, both he and the story he shared grabbed the attention and curiosity of people across the world. Hamo's wife, daughter and other family members were killed when their home in Syria was hit by a missile. He fled Syria with his surviving children, a son and three daughters, and arrived in Detroit at the end of 2015.
Hamo, a highly accomplished engineer and professor, was invited to attend President Barack Obama's final State of the Union as a guest of Michelle Obama in 2016.
It seems Hamo and his family, who eventually settled in Southeast Michigan, still pique the curiosity of many. In the latest round of our MI Curious project, listener Tim Patrick asked, "What happened to Dr. Rafaai Hamo, the Syrian refugee featured in Humans of New York who relocated to Southeast Michigan, and his family?"
Stateside had the chance to sit down with the man, now known as "The Scientist," at his home in Oakland County, and, with the help of interpreter Peter Al-Chona, we talked about his new life in Michigan.
Hamo cited President Obama's invitation as an impetus to get settled in the United States and Michigan.
"President Obama welcomed me, that gave me a great momentum and for being present here," he said. "As I don't consider myself as an immigrant, I consider myself as any other American citizen, that requires [me] to work and have duties and responsibility toward the people of Michigan and the state of Michigan. The welcoming of President Obama gave me a great respect and a great push to settle here and start a new life."
Just as anyone who is new to Michigan might be unprepared for the weather, Hamo found that took some adjustment too. But he and his family took it in stride as they found American traditions to be similar to those of the Kurdish people.
"It's unnatural that any human beings that leave his natural homeland, it would of course suffer some changes and of course will enter a new environment that is different than in his environment," Hamo said. "But although the weather was a little bit different than our weather in Syria, the traditions of the American people are very close to our tradition as Kurdish people and, of course, we were able to adjust and accept our new place, our new home in Michigan."
More than a year after arriving, Hamo has settled in a bit more. He's working and doing research and finds the language one of the most difficult problems he's encountered in his time here. However, that hasn't stopped him from pursuing his ambition "to serve all the human beings, especially in the field of research and innovation."
"So far, I'm working on my lab and I'm working on a couple of projects, of course with limited resources," he said. "So far in the field of invention, I am working on [some] research, which is about earthquakes. We're trying to anticipate the earthquake and trying to avoid the consequences of those earthquakes."
Hamo was also invited to - and attended - President Donald Trump's inauguration ceremony earlier this year. When asked how he feels about President Trump's executive order on immigration, Hamo offered another approach he believes could help solve the problems Trump believes exist and the one his people are facing.
"We look at America as a great country and also as a country of law. They have very great laws that we should respect and honor. And as long as they have taken this step, we do respect these laws," Hamo said. "But we ask the American president to stop the bloodshed in Syria and all other places in the Arab countries, in Syria, and especially in Kurdistan. If they do that and stop that bloodshedding, I think my people and the Kurdish people, will not need to leave their country and immigrate and find other countries to settle."
When Hamo and his family first arrived, he was quoted as saying, "We survived but we're dead psychologically." We asked him how they're doing now.
"Of course, with time, we're recovering psychologically, but there's still something of the memories that were really bad to remember and we always cannot forget," he said. "As a Kurdish people, we suffered a lot, especially after [the] Sykes-Picot treaty, and we've been suffering from killing and displacing and putting in jail, but we were able to overcome that and we are now the people that we are after all this suffering. And we're able to adjust, or to accommodate this environment, these situations, to keep on living."
To find out more about how Hamo and his family are doing, as well as the state of his stomach cancer, listen to the interview above.
Translation courtesy of Bromberg & Associates.
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