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Iraq War Veteran, a Muslim, to Be Among State of the Union Guests

  • Aru Pande

The Capitol Dome in Washington is illuminated early on Jan. 12, 2016, the day of President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address before Congress in Washington.

The Capitol Dome in Washington is illuminated early on Jan. 12, 2016, the day of President Barack Obama's final State of the Union address before Congress in Washington.

It was a phone call Naveed Shah was not expecting.

“All of a sudden, this call on Saturday: ‘Is this Naveed Shah? Would you like to be at the State of the Union in the first lady’s box?’ I said, ‘Are you sure you have the right Naveed?' ”

Shah, a Pakistani-American and Iraq War veteran, will be joining first lady Michelle Obama late Tuesday when President Barack Obama delivers his seventh and final State of the Union address to Congress and the American people.

“It is a huge honor, and I am very blessed to have the opportunity to do this,” Shah told VOA’s Urdu service. “I am proud to represent my family and the Pakistani and Muslim American community.”

'Hatred is not American'

The real estate agent, who lives outside Washington in Springfield, Virginia, with his 7-year-old son, Yusuf, and fiancée, Ashley, was born in Saudi Arabia and immigrated to the United States with his parents as a toddler.

Shah, 28, served in the U.S. Army for four years and was deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Since completing active duty, he has volunteered with veterans groups, helping others who served make the transition from military to civilian life.

Shah said he has never been anything but a proud Muslim American and has watched with concern as some Republican presidential candidates like Donald Trump criticize immigrants and Muslims in the wake of the San Bernardino terrorist attack.

“National security is a huge concern," Shah said. "You want your family to be safe — I want my family to be safe — but at the end of the day, hatred is not American.”

The Iraq War veteran said he was proud to serve his country and what it stands for.

“My first and foremost duty is to the United States and to the Constitution of the United States,” Shah told VOA. “I think what the U.S. has in place, the freedom of religion, is probably one of the greatest things in the world, and I feel that no matter which God you believe in, you should have the freedom to worship them.”

Optimistic view

It’s this message that Obama wants to exemplify as he lays out what he says will be an optimistic view of the United States, the country’s future and Americans’ ability to confront whatever challenges lie ahead. Obama will also look to counter the pessimism and negativity heard in Republican presidential campaigns and reflected in public opinion polls.

Shah is one of two dozen guests invited to sit in the first lady's box during this year’s State of the Union speech.

He will join Refaai Hamo, a Syrian scientist who lost his wife and daughter in the conflict and left his homeland to start a new life in Michigan. Others include Spencer Stone, who helped thwart a terrorist attack on a train bound for Paris; and Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, who has expanded paid leave at the company and supported computer science education in schools.

One seat in Michelle Obama’s box will be left empty to represent victims of gun violence in the United States.

Shah told VOA he never imagined he would have the opportunity to meet the president and the first lady, and he said he was looking forward to hearing Obama’s message of unity for the country.

“The fabric of America is our multiculturalism," he said. "Our diversity is what really brings us together.”

VOA’s Urdu service and Kokab Farshori contributed to this report.