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State of the Union guests reflect Obama’s hopes for legacy

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Refaai Hamo is a Syrian refugee.Carlos Osorio

WASHINGTON — A Syrian refugee, a former illegal immigrant who went on to serve in the US Army, and the lead plaintiff in the Supreme Court case last year legalizing same-sex marriage will be among the official guests Tuesday as President Obama delivers his final State of the Union address.

The three men — Refaai Hamo, Oscar Vazquez, and Jim Obergefell — will be joined by almost 20 other armed services members and civilians associated with the issues and initiatives that have defined Obama's presidency — and that he hopes will become his legacy.

Also among the guests will be Governor Dannel P. Malloy of Connecticut, a Democrat who has led efforts to increase the minimum wage and tighten gun laws after the massacre of 20 elementary school students in Newtown, Conn.


The White House announced Obama's full guest list on Sunday, two days before he is scheduled to address a joint session of Congress with a speech that officials said would focus more on the issues and challenges that are shaping the future of the country than specific policy proposals.

The guests are intended to illustrate "who we are as Americans: inclusive and compassionate, innovative and courageous," according to the White House announcement. The invitees — some high profile, most conspicuously not — will sit in the House gallery with Michelle Obama.

Hamo, a scientist who fled his homeland amid civil war, settled with four of his children in Troy, Mich., on Dec. 18. After the Humans of New York, a photo blog, featured his story, readers donated more than $450,000 to support the family, and Obama publicly welcomed him to the country.

Vazquez, who was brought to the United States illegally as a child and went on to earn a bachelor's degree in engineering in 2009, decided to return to his home country of Mexico and re-enter the country legally. When he returned to the United States, Vazquez joined the Army and served one tour of duty in Afghanistan, eventually earning US citizenship.


Obergefell, a real estate agent from Cincinnati, sued the state of Ohio, which had outlawed same-sex marriage, and ended up as the lead plaintiff on the Supreme Court case that last June guaranteed gay couples across the country the right to marry.

The president's other guests include the chief executive of Microsoft, Satya Nadella, whose company has pledged millions in education funding and increased paid leave for its employees, and Sue Ellen Allen, a former Arizona inmate who founded an organization that supports incarcerated and released women there.

Two of the guests have ties to Obama from his first presidential campaign.

One of them, Edith Childs, was a county councilwoman in Greenwood, S.C., when she met Obama in 2007 on the campaign trail and delivered what became an unofficial slogan in his two presidential campaigns: "Fired up! Ready to go!" The other, Earl Smith, gave him a military patch he wore in Vietnam and that Obama carried with him for the rest of the campaign.

Three of the guests, including Malloy, have links to the Affordable Care Act, Obama's hallmark health care legislation, which remains a divisive issue almost six years after its passage. Others have links to other priorities of Obama's, like gun control, criminal justice reform, and climate change.

Staff Sergeant Spencer Stone of the Air Force, who helped take down a gunman on a train in France last August, will also join Michelle Obama in the box, where the White House elected to leave one seat empty to represent victims of gun violence in the United States.