two women in hijabs and long-sleeved black dresses sit, hands in laps, in lawn chairs on green grass in yard next to house
The photographer’s mother (right) and a close friend. The two met in 1996, shortly after arriving in the United States. (Wesaam Al-Badry / Contact Press Images)

‘We Belong Here’

Documenting Arab American and Muslim American life without stereotypes

Wesaam Al-Badry was born in Iraq, where he and his family might have stayed if not for the Gulf War, which began when he was 7. In 1991, the family landed at a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia. There, Al-Badry got his first camera, a Pentax K1000. “I didn’t understand the numbers on top, shutter speed, and aperture, but I understood, over time, composition,” Al-Badry told me. Even without regular access to film or any reliable way to develop what he shot, he saw in his hands a tool for telling his story as it unfolded.

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Eventually, Al-Badry’s family was relocated to Lincoln, Nebraska. “When you come in as a refugee, you think everything is beautiful. You think you made it to the promised land; everybody’s equal,” he said. “But then you realize there’s little hints.” As he grew up, Al-Badry became more aware of racism. Teenagers mocked his mother’s hijab; many Americans, he realized, had been conditioned to see Arabs and Muslims as intrinsically strange, angry, or violent.

2 photos: woman crouches in sunny yard holding toddler surrounded by other family members; 2 teenage boys stand in blue wrestling singlets
Left: A family birthday celebration for Al-Badry’s daughter. Right: High-school wrestlers in Dearborn, Michigan. (Wesaam Al-Badry / Contact Press Images)
girl with dark wavy hair in light pink hoodie and sweatpants in front of window with long white curtains
The photographer’s niece Mya Al-Badry in Lincoln, Nebraska (Wesaam Al-Badry / Contact Press Images)
2 photos: woman in hijab looks closely in mirror at face; man and woman in traditional dress stand on green lawn in front of brick house with white shutters
Left: Wesaam Al-Badry’s mother at home in Lincoln. Right: Friends of Al-Badry’s family in front of their home in Detroit. (Wesaam Al-Badry / Contact Press Images)

The images in Al-Badry’s series “From Which I Came,” many of which feature his own family and friends, might easily be marshaled to represent a cultural clash—but his work asks you to focus on the individual, the intimacy of daily life. The people in these photos are rarely smiling. Al-Badry’s aim is to present them as resilient and dignified, even if it makes the photos less immediately inviting to his audience. His allegiance is to the people he is photographing; he wants his subjects to see themselves in the absence of imposed stereotypes. “We belong here,” he said. “We bring this very rich culture with us. But we’re not archaic figures; we’re not stuck in the past.”

girl in ponytail and pink leotard does a split on green grass in a fenced yard next to house
Amirah Al-Badry, a niece (Wesaam Al-Badry / Contact Press Images)
2 photos: woman with long wavy black hair in athletic wear; woman in hijab and abaya carries handbag walking across dry lawn next to driveway with other houses behind
Left: The owner of a gym in Dearborn Heights, Michigan. Most of her clients are women of Middle Eastern origin. Right: The photographer’s mother heading to a doctor appointment. (Wesaam Al-Badry / Contact Press Images)