When Greek photographer Panos Kefalos met Elias, a 14-year-old Afghan refugee living on the streets of Athens, the boy told him that he dreamed of owning a brand-new soccer ball one day. Kefalos spent more than three years documenting the lives of young refugees in Greece like Elias. The kids he shot are among the more than 22.5 million refugees who are out in the world today, fleeing conflict and persecution. While they all have different stories, Kefalos says that Elias's wish was pretty typical. Despite enduring unimaginable hardship, the refugee children he met in Greece between the fall of 2012 and the winter of 2015 didn't ask for much. "These kids wanted what every kid wants," the photographer says. "A place where they can feel safe."
Kefalos titled his resulting photo series saints, because his young subjects were both martyrs and witnesses to the wrongdoings of adults. He encountered his first "saint" in Victoria Square, where children often gathered to play. Some, like 13-year-old Sayid, spent their time in the square selling bread or sunflower seeds to support their families.
After dark, Victoria Square became dangerous. Kefalos witnessed a stabbing on one occasion and reports that boys as young as 16 were sometimes solicited by older men. Still, the children trusted him. One confided in the photographer about an abusive father. Another showed him the scar from a knife wound he got back home in Afghanistan and told him how, at age eight, he shot the kid who stabbed him.
Kefalos bonded with the young refugees and their families. Over time, he was invited into their homes and even to the mosque where they prayed. A few lived in a refugee housing complex on Alexandras Avenue, where power outages were common. Others lived outside in tents in Pedion tou Areos Park.
A boy named Sohrab helped Kefalos with his photography and introduced him to the community. He was, as the artist puts it, like an assistant. Kefalos spent nights in Sohrab's family's home, where the door was never locked to him.
The children were hardly immune to the cruelty of the adult world. Most had been separated from family members. The mother of one had been beheaded. Another girl told Kefalos about the time she saw a drowned corpse en route to Greece. Every time she was afraid, she said, she shut her eyes tightly and prayed.
But even in a state of limbo, with no safe place to call their own, the children showed kindness to the photographer. Elias, the teenager who yearned for a soccer ball, took care of Kefalos and brought him medicine when the photographer was sick.
Due to the ever-shifting immigration status of refugee families, Kefalos was often forced to part with his young subjects. The longest he was able to photograph one child was a year and a half before his family left Greece. But while they were in Athens, the youngsters had a friend in the photographer, who would often bring them gifts of toys and chocolates.
When Kefalos gave the children prints of his photos, they were excited to see images of themselves rendered in high-contrast black and white. Many subjects moved away on short notice, however, and the photographer still has a box of the pictures he never had the chance to give away.
Kefalos stopped photographing the saints in August 2015. When throngs of immigrants began pouring into the city, they were followed by the mainstream media. He didn't want to plague refugee families with one more unsolicited camera, so he stopped documenting the community.
Today, none of the children Kefalos knew remain in Greece. He's connected with some on Skype and Facebook, but has lost touch with others entirely. Some are gradually forgetting their Greek and learning new languages in faraway lands.
When Elias left for Norway, he took his very first soccer ball with him but left behind a beloved chick named Mek. He gave the bird to Kefalos, vowing to return someday. The photographer kept Mek for five months before passing the grown chicken along to a family friend with more space. But before Kefalos parted with the bird, Mek laid her first egg. It was a tiny reminder of the many little saints whose presences will linger with him for the rest of his days.