Before they turn 18 – 
Denis and his friends fled Kyiv just before their 18th birthdays – A story about courage, growing up alone and life as a young refugee in Berlin

Before they turn eighteen

With only six days left until his eighteenth birthday, Denis left Kyiv. He hopped on a bus to Berlin, leaving behind his parents and friends alongside a life full of plans and dreams. Since the Russian invasion on Ukraine, all men aged eighteen to sixty are forbidden from leaving, so Denis had to make this impossible decision fast. Now, with almost three months into his new life in Berlin, this story is a portrayal of courage and in the face of uncertainty. 

I met Denis about one moth after his arrival to Berlin. At that time, hundreds of refugees from Ukraine arrived every day and even though most voices were in solidarity and support, there were also voices of concern rising within the German population. It was during this time that I decided to find out more, for myself but also for a possible story – I wanted to understand what the reality of people looked like and decided to volunteer at a help center. There, one rainy morning in late April, 2022 I met Denis. I noticed him because he seemed to know everyone. He was more energetic and bounced around, chatting, giving advice, smiling. He seemed open and friendly but very much alone. At that time, I assumed he must have come here with his family, that he was perhaps fourteen or fifteen years old. We talked about his journey and where he lived, what his day to day looked like and I immediately proposed a time and day to take his picture but also requested to meet his parents to get their permission. This is how I found out that Denis came here alone and was already eighteen.

During the months of April and May 2022, I spent a lot of time with Denis and his friends, documenting his life, listening to his stories and taking his pictures. Jan Stremmel, a friend and journalist gave life to the story through his keen obervations and beautiful words. As it turned out, it was to become a story about friendship over hardship, hope over despair and the superpower of being a teenager.

Originially published in Süddeutsche Zeitung Issue June 4th, 2022 (print)
You can also read the full story (in German, subscription based) here:
Auf der Flucht vor dem Krieg – Junge Ukrainer in Berlin (Digital long read version)

All images copyright
of Guannan Li