A More Welcoming Union

By Rachel Nusbaum, HIAS.org

A More Welcoming Union

U.S. President Barack Obama delivers the State of the Union speech before members of Congress in the House chamber of the U.S. Capitol January 12, 2016 in Washington, DC.

(Alex Wong/Getty Images)

In his final State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama took time to remind the country that the United States is a strong nation that has faced big changes without abandoning its values.

At a time when some have advocated abandoning America’s long tradition of refugee resettlement and protection, he told a joint session of Congress and millions watching the speech across the country:

America has been through big changes before — wars and depression, the influx of immigrants, workers fighting for a fair deal, and movements to expand civil rights. Each time, there have been those who told us to fear the future; who claimed we could slam the brakes on change, promising to restore past glory if we just got some group or idea that was threatening America under control. And each time, we overcame those fears. 

There to witness the event in person and to take in that message of optimism firsthand was Refaai Hamo, a Syrian refugee who was resettled in Michigan less than a month ago along with four of his children.

Hamo lost several members of his family, including his wife and a daughter, when a Syrian government anti-personnel missile destroyed the complex where his family lived. They fled to Turkey, but Hamo developed stomach cancer for which he was not able to seek treatment. He had no insurance in Turkey, nor was he able to even earn a living without residence permits. After two long years, he was granted refugee status and boarded a plane to Detroit, Michigan.

Hamo sat with First Lady Michelle Obama during the speech. If he looked familiar, it may be because he was featured on the popular photo blog, Humans of New York.  "As a husband and a father, I cannot even begin to imagine the loss you've endured," Obama commented on the Facebook post featuring Hamo’s story. "Welcome to your new home. You're part of what makes America great."

Hamo knows he comes to the United States at a time when refugees are facing some backlash politically, but he hopes that shared humanity will triumph over fear. "For those who are against refugees coming to the U.S., maybe they don't understand who refugees are, what they're going through. The people of Syria, they are like any other people... they will give back to the community," he recently told press.

Also in the audience was Ahmad Alkhalaf, a nine-year old Syrian refugee who lost both of his arms and three of his siblings when a bomb struck the refugee camp they were living in. Ahmad attended the speech as the guest of Congressman Seth Moulton of Massachusetts.

“No one should experience in a lifetime what Ahmad has experienced at just nine years old. His courage and commitment to creating a better world should be a lesson to us all,” Moulton said in a statement. “We have a moral responsibility to uphold our American principles and that means helping kids like Ahmad who are fleeing from violence. Ahmad’s story is an example of why we must not abandon our American values of hope and freedom.”

To learn more about HIAS work to welcome newly resettled refugees in the U.S., click here.

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