Peter van Agtmael’s near decade exploring social justice, class race and history began with a project on veterans returning from war, and it has since expanded into a wider study of the everyday politics of life in the US as they play out in the lives of ordinary Americans. In 2015, this led van Agtmael to documenting the lives of a Syrian family seeking refuge in the US as they adjusted to life in the Chicago suburb of Aurora.
The Al Hajali’s were part of the small wave of 2,200 Syrian refugees of the civil war who had been granted asylum in the United States. Their son, Wissam, was initially granted asylum but his application was put on hold indefinitely. Father Mahmud, daughter Sham and twin 17-year old sons Ahmad and Mohamed work long hours at minimum wage to make ends meet.
At the time of photographing the Hajali family, around 2600 Syrian refugees had been admitted to the US. That figure had risen to 12,000 by Autumn 2016. Syrian refugees in the United States now face uncertainty as they wait to see if president elect Donald Trump will follow through with his campaign promises. In the run-up to the election Trump vowed to deport Syrian refugees – “If I win, they’re going back,” he said – and also announced plans to halt immigration from Syria and other “dangerous countries” for an undetermined period of time.