Photo Essay

Intimate Snapshots of a Syrian Family in America

The al-Haj Ali family entered the United States as refugees in 2015. Here’s a peek into their lives in Aurora, Illinois.

Peter van Agtmael
Mar 21, 2017 · 5 min read
Mahmoud shops for groceries at the Cermak supermarket where his twins worked.

Mahmoud and Azizeh al-Haj Ali, along with their four children, fled Syria in late 2012. They knew it was time to leave when Azizeh’s brother, a high-ranking official in the Assad government, defected. The family feared the wrath of the government would come down on them, as the regime prefers collective punishment as a way to keep Syrians in line.

They spent the next 30 months in Jordan, while being vetted to enter the United States. They were screened by the National Counterterrorism Center, the FBI, the Defense Department, the State Department, and the United States Customs and Border Protection. They then went through a special screening for Syrians.

In the end, they were granted clearance to join 2,647 other Syrian refugees in the United States. More than five million have fled Syria since the war began six years ago.

Above and below right, Ahmad al-Haj Ali, and below left, Mahmoud, at their family home in Aurora, Illinois.

Of the family, their son Waseem, 28, had the best education and was the most proficient in English. But at the last minute his visa was put on hold. The family was told it was just a brief bureaucratic hiccup — and so they traveled to Illinois.

More than a year later, Waseem was still stuck in Jordan while the family struggled in Aurora. Mahmoud and his daughter Sham worked minimum-wage factory jobs, while the twins, Ahmad and Mohamed, worked at a local supermarket six hours a day after high school.

In September 2016, Waseem was finally given clearance to come to America.

Ahmad in his bedroom

Ahmad, 18, likes to carry the flag of the Syrian opposition tucked into his waistband wherever he goes. As we walked into the supermarket one day, two women power-walked past. One glanced at the flag, her face curdled, and she sputtered, “That’s offensive! We are in America!”

Ahmad has since left his supermarket job and now works at Pizza Hut. In his spare time, he designs t-shirts for the Syrian Community Network in Chicago, with nostalgic slogans about his home country (“It’s Where Chivalry,” “It’s Where the Olive Branch”). He also frequently posts online about the ongoing conflict in Syria.

His twin brother, Mohamed, rarely speaks of the war.

The al-Haj Ali family chats with family over Skype in Jordan while enjoying a meal.

Less than year after arriving in the United States, Sham al-Haj Ali got engaged to Layth Al Ali, an Iraqi refugee. It was a whirlwind engagement. Layth had proposed two weeks before, but the al-Haj Ali family wanted to guarantee Sham’s future and the proposal was accepted.

The engagement party of Sham and Layth.

Layth is a former Iraqi contractor who guarded the Green Zone in Baghdad and fifteen years older than Sham. He had been granted asylum several years before under the Special Immigrant Visa and was helping run a successful used car business. They have since married, and they recently had their first child.

The opportunities for refugees to come to America have always been difficult, but have narrowed dramatically under the Trump administration. Although only five of approximately 784,000 refugees admitted to the United States in the past fourteen years (as of January 2016) have been arrested on terrorism-related charges, there is widespread fear.

On March 16, a ban was slated to take effect suspending visa processing for 90 days of six Muslim-majority countries. Syrians will be subjected to an additional freeze for 30 days, which was to be reevaluated upon its expiration. At the time of this writing, the executive order has been blocked by Federal Judge Derrick Watson of Hawaii.

Waseem and Noorhan, his wife, have now taken up residence next door to the rest of the family and recently had a baby girl. Waseem has started working, taking some of the burden off of Mahmoud, who has an old leg injury, and Azizeh, who has ruptured disks in her back.

But their lives are still precarious, a stark contrast to what they were accustomed to before the war, when Mahmoud had a successful locksmith business in Abu Dhabi. They wait with bated breath for their future in Trump’s America.

The al-Haj Ali family poses for a photograph outside their home (top L). Serving snacks for guests (top R). Mohamed (center) and Ahmad (right) photographed at school (bottom)

The Development Set is made possible by funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We retain editorial independence. Follow The Development Set on Facebook and Twitter.

The Development Set

Stories and conversations about global health and social impact.

Thanks to Sarika Bansal

Peter van Agtmael

Written by

The Development Set

Stories and conversations about global health and social impact.

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