He doesn’t know his birthday, exactly, because the Gregorian calendar is still a puzzle. But he knows his age, more or less, and he knows where he hails from—a village near Ghazni, Afghanistan, which he visits in dreams now and then. Milad Ahkabyar and his family fled their village in the fall of 2015 to escape persecution from the Taliban. For three months, they traveled by nearly every means to reach Germany, setting foot in seven countries along the way. They landed in Düsseldorf, at a former municipal building turned shelter where hundreds of families navigate the next step—toward asylum or deportation. In the meantime, somewhere along that perplexing calendar, Milad turned fourteen.
Photographer Diàna Markosian met Milad through KRASS, an organization that engages children through a variety of programs, including art therapy. She had used art therapy in past projects and saw its potential here, too, with the right collaborator. “I reached out to a number of organizations and went to a dozen different cities before I met Milad,” she says. “And it was pretty quick that he came up to me and started talking, telling me about his family. I didn’t meet anybody who moved me as much as he did. He’s very earnest.”
Markosian describes their collaboration as an organic process, one she was careful not to rush. “I didn’t introduce the camera until a month after I met him,” she says. In the meantime, she brought only a notebook to their conversations, clear in her role but careful in her pacing. After a couple of weeks, she gave Milad a Polaroid and encouraged him to begin taking pictures, a way of archiving a life he hadn’t had the means to before. “They didn’t have any pictures at all from Afghanistan,” Markosian says. “They just had these tiny passport photos that they’d gotten here.” So she encouraged him to use the Polaroid to document his life and preserve what he would want to remember.
She also asked him to draw his experiences, both in Afghanistan and Germany, using the principles of art therapy to access what otherwise wouldn’t have surfaced. “I don’t think Milad expected that of himself,” Markosian says. “But we saw it again and again: With so many of his experiences, what he couldn’t communicate directly he expressed through his art.”
Milad’s mixed-media Polaroids are remarkable for the access they offer, revealing the emotional subtext to everyday experiences—whether it’s a fascination with trains, or worry for his parents, or a painful nostalgia for the food of his former life.
In fact, one profound but easily underappreciated aspect of this work is what it says about meals as a family rite. The shelter where the Ahkabyars live has only one kitchen, in a cafeteria on the fourth floor. Families are prohibited from cooking for themselves; that custom is a memory. Food here is a bland, rationed fuel. As such, the joy these families once took in building their days around meals has become impossible in exile. If a truth persists across Milad’s work, it’s that the absence of his mother’s cooking has left him feeling adrift.
And yet, otherwise, life in Düsseldorf is normal enough. “We feel safe here,” Milad says. He enjoys school—though there’s a bully he’s careful to avoid. He has a crush on a girl who hardly pays him enough attention. One could say these are normalizing rituals, but still, being cutoff from a country he cherishes has taken a toll. Gray weather depresses him; he’s tearful when he remembers friends back home; he’s lost weight because the food here is so strange, the rations strict.
Whether the Ahkabyars can embrace a life in Germany—and whether they’ll be given that chance—remains an open question. For now, they move between lives, between worlds, between the culture they adore and the one to which they now belong.
“Do you want to go back to Afghanistan?” Markosian asked, back in January.
“No,” Milad told her. “We have nothing there anymore.”
This portfolio is part of a special project on Europe’s migration crisis, Paths to Refuge, which appears in the Spring 2017 issue. Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.