Refaai Hamo, the Syrian refugee whose story on "Humans of New York" (HONY), a popular photography blog, went viral on Facebook and sparked support from President Obama and actor Edward Norton, arrived in the Detroit area last night, where he shared his story of equal parts heartbreak and hope.
The 54-year-old scientist, who is currently battling stomach cancer, fled to Turkey from Syria two years ago after his house was bombed and destroyed, killing his wife, one of his daughters and other family members.
Despite tremendous grief, Hamo and his surviving children -- one son and three daughters -- are eager to rebuild their lives in Oakland County, Michigan. Hamo spoke at a news conference Thursday night with the help of a translator, an event arranged by Lutheran Social Services of Michigan, the refugee resettlement agency that helped bring Hamo and his family to the U.S.
"The people of Syria, they aren’t like any other people...they are very generous people," Hamo said. "If they go to another country, they don’t want to live under special circumstances. They will give back to the community. They will be good citizens to the countries they are living in. They will give back to the whole community here. I refuse to be called a refugee only."
Hamo frequently repeated that he wanted to "be a good citizen" and to "give back."
Before Hamo's arrival, he told HONY he had "several inventions that I'm hoping to patent once I get to America."
"I still think I have a chance to make a difference in the world," he said. "One of my inventions is being used right now on the Istanbul metro to generate electricity from the movement of the train. I have sketches for a plane that can fly for 48 hours without fuel. I’ve been thinking about a device that can predict earthquakes weeks before they happen."
Hamo added that he just wanted a place to do his research and to "get back to work" and "be a person again."
"I don't want the world to think I'm over," he said. "I'm still here."
Hamo's powerful words touched social media users all over the globe, including Obama, who commented on one of HONY's portraits of Hamo on Facebook, saying in part, "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."
Hamo's story also touched Norton, who wrote on Facebook that he was "moved to tears." The "Fight Club" actor spearheaded a fundraiser for Hamo's family that has already raised nearly half a million dollars.
"This man has suffered profound loss that would crush the spirit of many people and yet he still passionately wants a chance to contribute positively to the world," Norton wrote on his Crowdrise fundraiser site. "If we don’t welcome people like this into our communities and empower his dream of making an impact with his life, then we’re not the country we tell ourselves we are."