Turning 18: Photo series following the life of a young migrant new to Madrid

7 July 2023

Authors: Leah Pattem & Michel* | Photography: Leah Pattem

Chapter 1: 7th July, 2023.

The day Michel* turned 18, he stopped being welcome in France where he’d been living for two years learning to be a plumber. Overnight, his rights changed. No longer a minor, he was told to leave the country.

“They stopped everything. I suddenly had nothing. I had to start again.”

Michel decided on Spain as he knew he could learn the language quickly. On 29 April, he took a bus to Madrid where he saw a Black man and approached him for advice. Michel talks to Black people everywhere he goes, and they almost always help him. “He told me about a charity, so I went there immediately.”

For the past two months, Sercade has been helping Michel with shelter, food, Spanish classes and legal advice, and they organised attending the migrants’ rights protest on the anniversary of the Melilla Massacre, which is where I met Michel. He was handed a mic and a script and, despite only speaking basic Spanish, he rose to the challenge and won a roaring applause.

As the protest ended, I asked him if his involvement was based on personal experience.


Michel left Conakry, the capital of Guinea, when he was 15, imagining a life in Europe where he’d get an education and earn enough money to support his mum and younger brothers back home.

“I left with my uncle. My mum didn’t know I’d gone.” The pair travelled north-east through Mali and Algeria. Once in Libya, they were kidnapped and locked in a room in a house with around 17 other people for three months until his family could pay a €500 ransom.

From there, Michel took a boat to Italy with around 100 people, including small children. “I was worried our boat would be caught by people smugglers, like my uncle’s was, or that we’d drown at sea. But after 14 hours, an Italian boat found us in the middle of the Mediterranean. They gave us life jackets and took us onto their boat. We were all so happy.”

As Michel navigates Madrid and life as an adult for the first time, I’ll be following his progress in a collaborative series called Turning 18, photographed by me and told by Michel. There will be many challenges, but we both hope that this story will be a positive one.

*Michel’s real name was changed to protect his identity.


Chapter 2: 17th July, 2023.

Yesterday was the first time Michel had been to the Rastro but, despite this, he bumped into someone he knew. “That boy playing the drum, he’s from Senegal.”

The African drummers are an iconic fixture in the Sunday Rastro, but their stories are rarely told. The boy from Senegal, the one who gave Michel a wink and a smile as he danced past, had been staying at the same shelter as Michel, until they were moved.

“Sercade moved me to Red Cross on Monday and made me do a blood test to see if I was taking drugs. I’m clean, but I’m sleeping in a room with nine other men, and some of them are taking drugs during the day. It is not a good place. I can’t sleep well, and I don’t feel safe.”

Over the past week, Michel has been avoiding the Red Cross centre in Simancas as much as possible. “They turn the lights on at 6 o’clock in the morning, then we have breakfast and a shower, and then I spend all day out. I only return at 11.30 at night, just before they close the doors.”

Michel is only getting around six hours’ sleep per night and has no place to relax or take a siesta, which many of us take for granted. And because Michel was forced to move to another shelter, he missed Spanish class for four days. Frustrated with the situation, Michel said, “I told them, if you keep giving me all these appointments, how am I supposed to study?”

Spanish classes are four hours a day, from 8 to 10 am, then again from 5 to 7pm. They’re essential as, in September, Michel hopes to join a programme with @anortejoven where he’ll finish his studies as a plumber. After studying plumbing for two years in Paris, he just needs one more year to become fully qualified and can begin working, which will help his legal status.

As Michel enjoyed the sounds and sights of El Rastro yesterday, he knew he had a clear vision of his ambitions in Madrid. He just needs to get through this year – the year he turned 18, the year he lost more freedoms than he gained, but the year he hopes this will change.



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