For more than six months, from late 2015 into 2016, I followed thousands of migrants along the Balkan route into Europe — photographing desperate people fleeing from war, poverty and persecution. Most came from Syria and Afghanistan. Through it all, I couldn’t shake the thought that, had I been born in a different country, I could easily have been on the other side of the lens.
More than a year later, I used social media to track down some of these subjects, now settled in Germany. Though I’d only exchanged a few words with some of them initially, seeing them again strengthened our bond: I didn’t know them well, but we’d shared some of the most trying moments of their lives.
Refugees at the Keleti train station in Budapest in September 2015 grow restless waiting for trains to restart after a delay of more than 24 hours | All photos by Elio Germani for POLITICO
Everyone I spoke to was grateful to have ended up in Germany. That gratitude, however, is tempered by growing distrust toward refugees and asylum seekers. Times have changed and the open arms they were welcomed with in 2015 have closed a little.
All these young men came from war zones, where they left behind their lives — and their families. While they’re relieved to be out of war-torn environs, there’s a shared sense of deep loneliness in their new homes.
Alaa, a Syrian refugee from Latakia, waits for the departure of his train from Budapest to Austria on September 10, 2015. He waited for more than 24 hours because of a hold on departures.
More than a year on, Alaa often travels by train to Regensburg in Bavaria, where he takes a German language course.
Alaa waits for the train to Regensburg.
Alaa kept pictures from his initial crossing into Europe. His trip took 25 days and cost him €2,000. In this frame, he’s just arrived on the north coast of Lesbos, Greece.
Alaa lives with his brother and two cousins in Regenstauf, but he still misses his parents — and his previous life — in Latakia.
Bilal, a Syrian refugee from Damascus, had just started studying journalism before he fled the country. Now he lives in Osnabrück, Germany.
Bilal gets a shave from a volunteer at the Keleti train station in Budapest in September 2015. Despite the local authorities’ ban on relief activities at the station, volunteers and NGOs provided help to refugees.
Fast-forward to 2017 and Bilal gets a shave in rather more comfortable surroundings — courtesy of his roommate in Osnabrück.
Bilal’s building in Osnabrück also hosts a mosque.
If war ended in Syria, Bilal says, he would immediately return to Syria, where he left his parents and three sisters.
Weary travelers are stranded in Horgoš, Serbia, in September 2015, following a border closure by Hungarian authorities.
Early in the morning of September 15, 2015 in Horgoš, Serbia, a Syrian refugee from Homs, whom we’ll call “H,” put on his last clean T-shirt, thinking he’d be welcomed into Hungary. Now, pictured in front of the Catholic residence in Bavaria, where he’s lived since the end of 2015, he says he wouldn’t consider returning to Syria, (“There are too many horrible things happening there”) though he’s constantly thinking of his sister, the family member he misses the most.
“H” speaks to a Hungarian police officer on the other side of the border, just hours after the complete closure of the crossing by Hungary.
“H” enjoys the German language and the culture in his new home. He’s confident his civil engineering diploma will be useful once he’s fluent in the language.
Even in the snowy Bavarian winter, “H” rides his bike around town. He misses the Syrian climate, but says he has adapted quickly to his new environment.
Despite being a Greek Orthodox Christian, “H” prays in a Catholic cathedral, because the city lacks an Orthodox church. He says that he barely slept on his journey from Homs, still shocked at having been kidnapped by ISIS. He was released after his family paid a ransom.
In November 2015, a chaotic scene in the transit zone at the Šentilj border crossing in Slovenia, just a few meters from Austria.
Mahmoud, then 22, from Aleppo, Syria stands in the square in Šentilj, Slovenia in 2015, bound for Berlin. Although volunteers handed out supplies to travelers, Mahmoud only managed to grab a pair of red headphones. “If we are here,” he told me then, “it’s because we want to live.” A year later, above right, he poses for a portrait outside a language school in Potsdam, where he lives. Mahmoud speaks Arabic, Turkish, English and French and he’s studying German. He’d like to learn more about information technology.
Mahmoud — at the train station in Potsdam — left his father, a brother and a sister in Aleppo.
In Germany, Mahmoud tries to avoid socializing with only other refugees, trying to meet locals. But, he says, it’s not easy. One woman turned him away when she discovered his origins and his refugee status.
In November 2015, a group of refugees from Afghanistan (including Ahmadnadim, below) heads for the small border village of Miratovac, Serbia.
Ahmadnadim left Mazar-i-Sharif, the second largest city in Afghanistan, for Germany. Above left, he’d just arrived in Miratovac, on the Serbian border. He finally arrived in Germany at the end of November 2015, on his 20th birthday. He’s now settled in Kassel.
Ahmadnadim now focuses on learning German, which will allow him to restart his studies and to work in banking. His journey to Europe wasn’t without drama: Crossing from Turkey to Greece, another boat approached the inflatable Zodiac he was on, piercing it with a lance. The passengers tossed luggage overboard to keep the boat from sinking.
Ahmadnadim still has a strong attachment to his parents, though they remain in Mazar-i-Sharif.
Though Ahmadnadim has a brother in Kassel, he misses family and friends in Afghanistan.
The border crossing between Horgoš, Serbia, and Röszke, Hungary, in September 2015. A group of refugees follows the railroad tracks, headed to the transit zone in Röszke.
Feras, a Syrian refugee from Damascus, stands on railroad tracks in Serbia, taking a short break by an abandoned border police tower. At right, Feras in his new home of Trier, Germany.
Feras talks on the phone to his family in Damascus — his parents, two brothers and a sister, none of whom he’s seen in five years.
Feras peers out the window of his apartment in Trier, where he lives alone after moving five times between refugee camps, community centers and other shared accommodation.
In September 2015, refugees camp out at a service station in Beli Manastir, Croatia, an overflow from an official camp set up by local authorities.
Ahmad, a Syrian refugee from Aleppo, next to a gas pump in Beli Manastir, where he spent the night in 2015. Before leaving his war-torn homeland, he was studying to be a bank teller. At right, Ahmad in Herford, where he now lives in a flat after spending time in two different refugee camps.
Ahmad — who left his parents and a young sister in Aleppo — walks down the steps at the Herford train station.
In January 2016, a group of volunteers on the east cost of Lesbos aids in the arrival of an inflatable boat from Turkey. It was the third crossing attempt for Jalal (waving his arms at the back of the boat) who had already witnessed the drowning of a compatriot from Syria.
Jalal, then 20 years old, after successfully landing on the Greek coast in 2016. At right, Jalal poses in his new home of Bad Säckingen, Germany.
Jalal walks along the Holzbrücke, a bridge that connects Bad Säckingen to the Swiss border.
Jalal left his parents in the Damascus region of Syria, along with two sisters and three brothers. This is the last picture he took of his parents as he left home.
In Germany, Jalal enjoys playing pool when not attending intensive German classes. He’s found — as many refugees have — that it is often difficult for newcomers to make friends with locals.
Jalal spends most of his time in Germany with refugees who are in a similar situation. Here, he walks through the Black Forest with the children of a friend from Syria.