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

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

*Michel’s real name was changed to protect his identity. #MNFTurning18

Chapter 1: 23 June, 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. In May, 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.

Chapter 2: 17 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.

Chapter 3: 8 September, 2023

I met Michel earlier this week for a stroll around the Palace area – it’s the first time he’s been here, and he says it looks a lot like Paris, where he used to live.

Michel is looking well; he has a cowry shell necklace and a new mobile phone. He bought them with his own money by working at Mercamadrid – a job which he heard about from someone he met at Sercade.

“I wake up at 2am and take three buses to get there.” Michel has a young person’s transport card which costs just €8 per month and has been a lifeline for him. “We’re a team of about 10 men, all from Africa. We start at 4am, packing and moving crates of vegetables, and we finish at 10am. I get around €10 per day during the week but on weekend days it could be more like €25. The work is hard but at least it’s safe. I could earn more money in construction, but I think it’s quite dangerous.”

After work, Michel then heads back to the soup kitchen for lunch. “We eat well, but there is a lot of tortilla. There’s also gazpacho, which is nice.” He then heads to Retiro Park: “I can’t go back to the hostel until 6pm, so this is where I come to relax and kill some time. It’s become my routine.”

Michel has been unable to go to all his Spanish classes recently because of his work, but he’s speaking Spanish daily and begins speaking to me in Spanish with good clarity and comprehension. He’s only been in Spain for four months now but says, “I’m good at languages. I speak English, French, Italian, a little bit of Arabic, and my native language, Fula. And now some Spanish.”

Michel is still hoping to continue his training as a plumber. He completed two years of training when living in France and just needs one more year to be fully qualified. The new semester at @anortejoven begins this month and he’s waiting for a phone call.

As we approach the Templo de Debod, Michel appears charmed by the views over the south of the city. “I’m starting to feel more comfortable here. Madrid is where I live now.”

Chapter 4: 19 November, 2023

Around a month ago, after working mornings in Mercamadrid for the summer, I could see how exhausted Michel was. He’d just woken up after napping in Sercade: “they sometimes let us sleep there in the afternoons because we don’t have access to our beds during the day.”

But last week, he seemed much more upbeat, and told me that he’d found a new job. “A guy I know told me about working in the street markets around Madrid, and the family that hired me are good people. They have sons my age who are cool guys and we speak a lot of Spanish.”

This morning, I visited Michel in El Rastro, where he now works every Sunday in a second-hand clothes stall. He was hanging up jackets and keeping the stall neat and tidy. “I get paid around €30 for half a day. Maybe €100 a week. It’s a good salary and I can save up, which is what the Red Cross told me I should do.”

Michel told the staff at the Red Cross, where he’s living, that he had some relatively stable work and so they offered him a bed in a shared flat with three other lads, two from Morocco and one from Conakry, where Michel is from.

“I go to Lavapiés to buy my own food and cook it. I’m so happy to be eating my own food again. But I only have four months in this flat and, in this time, I need to save up enough money to be able to start renting a place myself.”

But Michel’s plan since he arrived in Spain was to recommence his plumbing training. “The embassy has had my passport for more than three months. Without it, I can’t apply for the course that started in September, so I’ve missed it now. Instead, they told me I should try training as a carpenter.” He lowered his head in disappointment with this option and contemplated how he’d be able to work to pay rent and also begin training again.

“I don’t mind working a lot. I’m young and healthy, and I want to succeed. But I don’t know if it’s possible as there just aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do everything.”

Chapter 5: 14 January, 2024

Yesterday evening, I went to Michel’s housewarming party. I’ve never been more excited to celebrate someone moving in.

After @sercadeongd put Michel in contact with @balimayaproyecto he was offered a warm, furnished apartment in Barrio Latina with seven other young lads. Last month, he moved in and, last night, the lads cooked up a feast for all the volunteers and friends they have met since arriving in Spain.

“These guys are really nice. I share a room with another lad. I have space to put my things, and there’s a bus stop right outside our house. We get to cook our own food, we can have guests. I can go out and come home whenever I like. The only thing is I have to keep the place clean and be respectful.

“I’m still working with the rastro family on Saturdays and Sundays, so I earn a stable €150 a week and I don’t pay rent. So I can buy food and save up money for when I need it.

“I have this place for as long as I need, there is no time limit. That means that I can continue my studies. They’ve got me on an electrician’s course at @nortejovenalumni, and then, next year, I’ll switch back to plumbing and finally complete my plumbing qualification.”

Michel arrived in Madrid after being expelled from France the day he turned 18, where he’d been living shortly after taking a boat to Italy at age 15. In Madrid, he lived in Red Cross dorms with a dozen men sharing one room, only able to sleep a few hours a night before being kicked out during daylight hours and spending entire days outdoors.

He worked dawns in Mercamadrid, which stopped him going to Spanish classes, and he ate in soup kitchens before heading back to Retiro Park to rest before being allowed back into the dorm.

In just 10 months, which feels like a lifetime when you’re just 18, Michel has achieved relative stability. His plan is to continue studying and to keep his head down until he can get his papers, when he’ll then set up his own plumbing business in Madrid.

Chapter 6: 22 April, 2024

“In my country, it is very expensive to buy a Vimto because our salary is so low. But I’m working now and can afford it.”

Michel continues working at the Rastro and speaks very highly of the family who employ him. With this money, he can buy his own food and spices to cook with in his flat, explaining that simply being able to cook for himself has given him the sense of independence he always craved.

“Do you remember I used to go to the soup kitchen and eat tortilla every day? It was good, but I still don’t want to eat tortilla again for some time,” says Michel, jokingly but also understandably.

Our conversation turns to the future which, during the first few months that I knew him, had been a topic he’d struggled with.

“I want to finish my training as a plumber but also learn other skills, so I can be fully self-sufficient. I want to be able to build my own house all by myself. Maybe I will build one in Conakry for my mother and little brother, and they can live there, and I can visit them for a couple of months a year.”

Earlier that week, Spain’s government voted overwhelmingly in favour of discussing the regularisation of undocumented migrants currently living and working in Spain. Michel brings this up and smiles, “It’s good news. Maybe soon I can visit my family. It’s been almost five years since I last saw them. I really miss them.”

Michel’s one-year Spanniversary is coming up. It’s almost one year since he pulled into Méndez Álvaro bus station and met a young black man who advised him to go to Sercade. We chat about how he’d like to acknowledge this day.

“I want to see all the people who helped me throughout this year. I’ve met some good people along the way, and I want to invite them for dinner at my house. Come, I will cook you some Guinean food and we will celebrate.”

Chapter 7: 26 June, 2024

It was one year ago this week that I met Michel*. He was quiet and often very tired. He’d been living in temporary shelters with Sercade and the Red Cross, sharing rooms with up to 10 other men. He attended appointments in the morning, the soup kitchen for lunch and Spanish classes in the afternoon, then would go to Retiro Park to until being allowed back into the shelter at night to sleep.

In this year, Michel has had a series of odd jobs. He worked in Mercamadrid from 4 am to 10 am until he found work with a Rastro family, who he now works with a few days a week in between his studies at @norte_joven. He’ll continue at the academy next year but in plumbing to finally complete the qualification he started in France before he was told to leave the country after turning 18.

In January, Michel was given accommodation in a @balimayaproyecto house where he now has his own room with one other lad. He has space to store his belongings, cook, study and spend time with the friends that he’s made in Madrid. For his one-year Spanniversary, he decided to have a small lunchtime gathering (pictured) and cooked a peanut and chicken stew with rice, traditionally made in West Africa.

“You remember when I was going to the comedor every day? All I wanted to do was go and buy my own ingredients and cook my own food. And now I can.”

Michel’s story is one of relative success, but he’s extremely conscious that he’s the exception. “I don’t share my life on social media, I don’t want anyone thinking that everything I’ve been through to get here has been worth it. I now have dreams and ambitions – I want to build my own house with my own skills and resources. I want to build a house in Conakry for my mum and brother and visit them a few times a year,” he says. “But, for years, my life has not been easy.” Indeed, he is lucky to be alive.

I had no idea when I met Michel one year ago that he would land on his feet, and I am incredibly glad that this story has a happy ending, which brings us to the end of this one-year photography series, #MNFTurning18.

Thank you for following Michel’s story until now, and please wish him the best of luck for his new life in Spain.


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