At the sprawling tent city on the Greece-Macedonia border, a photographer meets a boy aiming for Germany
This is Ahmed from Syria.
At 11 years old, he is a refugee from Syria and a face for a number of hellish statistics. He is one of the 8.4 million Syrian youth who the United Nations says have been affected by the conflict, now in its sixth year. He is one of more than 4.8 million registered refugees, and included in the 39% who are his age or younger. He is one of the more than 2.8 million Syrian children who are out of school. He is one of the estimated 44,000-plus refugees who are trapped in Greece. And he is among more than 1,200 who have been stranded on the border with Macedonia, unable to push on.
What began as a transit camp near the Greek village of Idomeni has metastasized into a squalid, disease-ridden tent city. Many have been there for weeks, hoping for a chance to soldier through the Balkans on the well-trodden path to western or northern Europe. A U.N. official recently described the scene as “just not a place that is fit for humans.”
Ali Noureldine, a photographer based in Cologne, Germany, recently returned from the camp. Represented by laif photo agency and known professionally as Ali Ali, he made his name with EPA documenting daily life in Gaza, the coastal enclave of 1.8 million Palestinians. “I’ve seen many camps in Gaza, in Europe, even, but not like that,” says Noureldine. “Many people don’t have tents so they sleep on the street, or under trees. For me, it’s not a camp.”
Noureldine met many children there. One morning, he came across a small line of people waiting for maps of the region. There was Ahmed, squatting, exhausted. He was wearing muddied boots and layers of clothes, huddled under a blanket. He had a few cuts on his face. Noureldine made a several pictures, including the portrait above, and then slowly walked up to him.
“He had beautiful eyes, but sad eyes,” Noureldine says.
The boy was traveling with his family. After Noureldine said he lived in Germany, Ahmed said that was his destination. He hadn’t been in school in a year, but said he wanted to continue his studies in Germany—“to live like the other kids, to be like them.”
Noureldine told the boy not to worry, that everyone would get to cross. He smiled. Even if that wouldn’t be true, at least yet, Noureldine says, “you have to give them some hope that the life they seek is really good, and that [they’ll] find the life [they] deserve.”
Ali Noureldine is a photographer based in Cologne, Germany, and represented by laif. Follow him on Instagram @alinoureldin.
Andrew Katz is TIME‘s International Multimedia Editor. Follow him on Twitter @katz.