Through a young migrant’s eyes

An Afghan teen begins a new life in Europe Photographs by Diana Markosian/Magnum Photos
Story by Kyle Almond, CNN

Afghanistan was no longer safe for 14-year-old Milad and his family.

They needed to get out fast to escape the threat of the Taliban.

“We sold our home, our animals, my mom’s jewelry … everything,” the teenager told photographer Diana Markosian.

In all, the family spent about $26,000. Milad was smuggled out of the country along with his parents and his two younger sisters. They traveled for three months — crossing various borders by car, train, boat and foot — before ending up in Germany, where they are now seeking asylum.

Markosian met Milad in September, when the family was living in a migrant center in the German city of Dusseldorf. She had come to the country looking to do a story on a family starting a new life there, and she was invited to Milad’s shelter by Krass, a German nonprofit running an art therapy program for children.

From left, Milad rests in Germany with his father, Mohammed; his mother, Aziza; and his sister Mina. Milad’s sister Mahya is not pictured. The five of them fled Afghanistan last year.

Milad drew this map of the route he and his family took to Germany. From their village in Afghanistan, they traveled to Pakistan, Iran, Turkey and then Greece. Once they were in Europe, they traveled through several other countries, including Macedonia and Austria, before ending up in Germany. They initially planned on traveling to Sweden but stopped when they heard that Sweden was closing its borders.

“Milad came up to me, and he was very open and very earnest and quiet,” Markosian recalled. “He just had a different sort of energy to him.”

He also spoke English, having learned it in school in Afghanistan, and that made it easier for the two to relate.

“He started telling me about his family and I asked if I could meet his mom, his father and sisters,” Markosian said. “We had dinner that very first night. I remember going home thinking, this is the family I want to be with for the next few months.”

The family had been in Germany for about half a year. They were living in a large building with other migrant families. Each family had their own room, but bathrooms were shared and everyone ate in a cafeteria upstairs.

Milad says he misses his friends back in Afghanistan. “Two days ago, I saw them in my dream,” he told photographer Diana Markosian. “I asked them to give me their address so I can visit them, but then I wake up before they tell me.”

When he arrived in Germany, Milad was surprised at the size of the houses — and how clean the streets were.

The food may have been the hardest part for Milad and his family.

“They could never cook for themselves because they never had a kitchen. None of the refugees did,” Markosian said. “For breakfast, they would have bread and jam. For lunch, they would have bread, jam and maybe spaghetti. If you think about it, it’s the most random sort of food for a family coming from elsewhere. They're not used to any of these flavors or tastes or smells, and all of a sudden they're consuming it on a daily basis.”

Milad stopped eating, and he lost about 15 pounds.

“I eat two sandwiches every day,” he told the photographer. “It’s not very good. I miss my mother’s food.”

Milad’s parents, Aziza and Mohammed. “I sometimes worry about them,” said Milad, who took this photo with a Polaroid camera Markosian gave the family. Mohammed wants to be a chef, and Aziza wants to be a nurse, Markosian said.

Milad photographed a meal of vegetables and rice that he and other migrants were given at their shelter in Dusseldorf. He drew in the bread and Coca-Cola he wished he had. He told Markosian he misses his mother’s cooking.

But Milad said he and his family were still very happy in Germany. They felt safe, most of all, and they were able to experience things they had never had before.

Milad had never seen a train until he came to Europe. Or a supermarket. Or an elevator. He was amazed by Dusseldorf’s “too clean” streets, and the big homes where “when it rains, it’s not wet inside.”

He also enjoys school, although it takes him an hour to get there by bus and train.

“I think he's adjusting,” Markosian said. “He has a crush on a girl. He speaks German. He has a few friends — not many German friends, but he has a few friends. And I think he really likes learning.”

Milad is adapting to school in Dusseldorf. It takes him an hour to get there by bus and train.

Milad and his family put together a puzzle. He told Markosian he never had puzzles in Afghanistan.

Markosian spent about a month and a half with the family before even picking up a camera. And then when she did start her project, she wanted to involve them and let them have some ownership of the story. She gave them a Polaroid camera.

Milad’s Polaroids, along with his drawings and writings, combine with Markosian’s work to give viewers a sense of what it’s like adjusting to a new country.

“They don't have a photo album from Afghanistan, and when I learned about that I really wanted to give something back to them that they could remember and have for themselves,” Markosian said.

Milad’s photo of a train station in Dusseldorf. The stick figure Milad drew is saying “Welcome to Germany.”

Milad’s school in Dusseldorf. He said his school in Afghanistan was a tent that was hard to sit inside because it was so cold.

Markosian can relate to the family in many ways, as she was also an immigrant. She came to the United States from Russia 20 years ago.

“When I was a kid, my mom woke me up one morning and said we were going on a trip — and the next day we arrived in America,” she said.

Markosian used to watch the American soap opera “Santa Barbara,” and that was the California city they migrated to.

“That first year in America made a real impression on me when I was a child,” said the photographer, who now lives in Los Angeles. “It’s been interesting for me to document someone who mirrored that experience I had, all these years later.”

Milad shops at a Dusseldorf supermarket with one of his sisters. He had never seen a supermarket before coming to Germany. “There are too many options in this country,” he told Markosian.

Milad’s mother holds her new daughter, Zeynab. “We all want to stay here, but I have no idea if we will,” Milad told Markosian.

Milad’s family had their final asylum interview in December, and they are still waiting to hear whether they will be allowed to stay. In the meantime, they’ve added a new member — a baby girl named Zeynab — and moved into a new facility where they finally have their own kitchen and their own bathroom.

Markosian said the family is eager to assimilate. They are learning German. The father, Mohammed, wants to be a chef. The mother, Aziza, hopes to be a nurse.

“Sometimes when the weather is rainy, I feel not so good,” Milad told Markosian. “I think about my friends and my uncles and sometimes I (cry). I feel just sad because I remember Afghanistan.”

But when asked if he wants to go back, Milad is unequivocal.

“No. We have nothing there anymore.”

Diana Markosian is an Armenian-American photographer based in Los Angeles. She is a nominee member of Magnum Photos. Her project on Milad was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Photo editor: Brett Roegiers