WASHINGTON – A newly arrived Syrian refugee with a harrowing story and a Muslim former U.S. 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 Dec. 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 U.S. 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 front-running 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.
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 Sgt. 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 U.S. Army, and Satya Nadella, an Indian-born engineer who is a cricket aficionado, poet and the chief executive officer of Microsoft.
The Syrian scientist stricken with cancer and seeking a new start for his family in the United States will represent Syrian refugees as a guest of Michelle Obama for the president’s address.
President Barack Obama has committed to accepting an additional 10,000 Syrian refugees, but some Republican lawmakers and presidential candidates are critical of the expansion. Republican presidential candidate Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, for example, noted the recent arrest of two Iraqi refugees on charges of trying to help the Islamic State group. During an interview with CNN that aired Sunday, Cruz emphasized that they came to the United States “using the same vetting that President Obama wants us to trust with Syrian refugees.”
Refaai Hamo, his son and three daughters landed at Detroit Metropolitan Airport in December, anxious to rebuild their lives. Hamo fled to Turkey from Syria after a missile attack killed his wife and one other daughter. Hamo was profiled on the popular photo blog Humans of New York and identified as “The Scientist.”
The White House said Sunday that Hamo will be among about 20 guests who will sit near the first lady on Tuesday. The guests include several veterans and service members, including one of the three Americans who thwarted a terrorist attack aboard a Paris-bound train.
Those on the guest list will highlight issues that Obama has attempted to prioritize during his tenure, such as expanded health insurance coverage, and issues that he hopes to work on during his final year, such as criminal justice reform. The guest list includes a California man whose partner was killed in the San Bernardino attack, the first female Army Reserve officer to graduate from the Army’s elite Ranger School and a plaintiff in the landmark Supreme Court case that found same-sex couples have a constitutional right to marry. One seat will be empty, to represent the victims of gun violence.
Obama read about Hamo’s story last month. His cancer had gone untreated because he lacked health insurance. The actor Ed Norton set up for the Hamo family an online fundraising campaign that raised more than $450,000. The White House described Hamo as living the kind of life in Syria that is associated with the American dream. He married his college sweetheart, and they built a life together before a missile tore through the complex he helped design and where his family lived.
Obama told Hamo through a Facebook posting that, “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.”
Other guests include: Staff Sgt. Spencer Stone of Sacramento, California, who, along with Anthony Sadler and U.S. Army Specialist Alex Skarlatos, stopped a man from opening fire on passengers aboard a crowded Paris-bound train.