For their families, the decision to let them go was a desperate one: their last hope, they believed, that their children could have a normal life.
In pursuit of that, many of these children have crossed the Mediterranean on sinking boats, slept rough on European streets and navigated the dangers of people smugglers and border guards.
Often, their only way of maintaining contact with their families is via Whatsapp and social media, as they hope to one day be reunited.
Here, three teenage refugees share their stories.
Ahmed: ‘In my class, at least five people left for Europe’
Outside the central train station in Hamburg, Germany’s second-largest city, 15-year-old Ahmed, a young Syrian in a parka and skinny jeans, stands to the side of the rush-hour crowds.
He rubs his thumb against the splintered corner of his phone’s screen, waiting for the Whatsapp call to his father to connect.
“It’s eight months since I have seen my family,” Ahmed explained. “I don’t want to video call because one of us will cry.”
This station is where he first arrived last September, after travelling alone across Europe from the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, where his family lives as refugees.
When I met his family in March, on a dusty terrace above the family’s apartment in Reyhanli, they were speaking to Ahmed via a shaky Whatsapp connection from Germany. His father, Mustafa, cradled the phone in his palm, his three young daughters huddled around him.
“Last night, I dreamed of Ahmed coming home,” the youngest, six-year-old Sara, told her father. He nodded, wiping away tears with the back of his hand. “She tells me that every day,” he said.
Ahmed calls his father every day, sometimes on his way to school on the train, at other times from the wooden picnic table outside what he calls “the camp” – the accommodation he lives in with other unaccompanied minors. His dorm room, shared with five other boys from Syria, Afghanistan and Iran, is too noisy, he says.
Ahmed’s family fled their home in Ariha, northern Syria, nearly three years ago. He remembers the sounds of the tank shells and his sisters shaking to the point that he couldn’t unclench their fists or stop them crying.
Mustafa was an Arabic teacher and Ahmed’s mother, Nahed, worked in the examination department of the local university. Now, Mustafa scrapes together a living as an unofficial taxi driver and is barely able to afford the rent.
In Turkey, Ahmed was attending an unofficial school for refugees but couldn’t get any qualifications. With dreams of becoming a doctor, he knew he had to get to university somehow.
“In my class, at least five people left to Europe, all my age,” he said. “I wanted to go to a better place.”
He described how he begged to be allowed to go to Europe or to return to Syria and how his father finally relented.
“My father thought it was better for me to die in the sea than in Syria,” he explained. “[He] wanted to save at least one person from our family.”
Ahmed took a bus to Izmir. At the coast, a smuggler put him on a packed dinghy, heading towards Greece in the pitch dark.
“I was seven hours in that boat and we nearly sank four times,” he said.
When he didn’t hear from him, Mustafa was certain his son had drowned. He still breaks down remembering that night.
Ahmed flicks through photos of his journey: the last day with his mother, her cheeks wet, trying to smile; in a field in Serbia, refugees’ socks of drying on hedges; on a railroad tracks, his eyes heavy after 10 days without sleep.
He had some help along the way. A priest in Hungary found him and some other refugees sleeping on a street one night and took them to a church, where they could rest and take a shower.
After being registered as an unaccompanied minor in Hamburg, he was moved between different hostels, at one point sleeping in a room with nearly 20 others. It was seven months until he was allowed to start school. Now, he is continuing his studies and has a good support network of friends and guardians. Life is a bit easier.
He has learned to cook for himself now, mainly pasta or fish, sending his mum photos for her approval.
His parents tell him to take care of himself, to learn the language, to do his homework, he said.
Hamburg was once called Germany’s “gateway to the world” because of its large port. Ahmed hopes making it to the city will be the gateway to a better life for him.
His father had been saving up to take the family to Europe, but with refugees being sent back from Greece, it’s impossible for them to reach Germany the way Ahmed had.
“I didn’t send him to lose him,” said Mustafa. “I don’t want to lose my son.”
He wants the family to be together, but Ahmed is determined to stay in Germany.
“I miss my family so much; I lived with them my whole life,” said Ahmed. “I sometimes feel worried, but if I go back, I have nothing.”
Fahed: ‘I must complete my life’
As teenage boys mill around the front hall of the hostel for unaccompanied minors, 16-year-old Fahed explained how he travelled alone from Aleppo to Hamburg, determined not to let war stop him from fulfilling his ambitions.
It was last July when he took the blessing of his grandfather and began his journey. His parents had left Syria two years before for Dubai after his father was arrested and held for 10 days. They took his two younger brothers with them, but Fahed wanted to stay in Syria.
His family runs a successful money-exchange business and Fahed wants to be a wealthy businessman one day. At his prestigious school in Aleppo, he used to swim and ride horses. In his spare time, he helped out in his grandfather’s shop, counting the money and chatting with customers.
“I miss everything, my home, my work,” he said. “I used to go with my father to his shop, but now the shops are gone, destroyed in the bombings. My granddad is sick and he might have to leave as well.”
After the attacks in Aleppo had worsened, it became increasingly difficult for Fahed to continue his studies.
“In school, you could hear shooting and bombing outside and it made me scared,” he remembered. “Sometimes we would have to hide under a table or in the toilet. [I thought] if I go to school, maybe I will die.”
Fahed was the first of his friends to go to Europe. His grandfather found it hard to let him go. “But he said it’s your life, I can’t stop you,” he explained.
He stayed for a few weeks in Turkey, but life was difficult there. His father sent money to pay a smuggler to get him to Greece. From there, he travelled overland. In Hungary, he was separated from the group of people he was moving with and ended up sleeping for three nights on the streets.
Hamburg is a “cool” city, he said, and he thinks he blends in here. But he still misses Aleppo and would like to go back. “But now, you can’t make anything safe there – your home or your life,” he said. “My dad’s shop was broken in the bombings. He had three shops and now they are all bombed. I’m sad for my country.”
His father is able to fly to Germany to visit him, but he wishes his son would come to live with him in Dubai. Over Whatsapp calls, his nine-year-old brother Bashir pleads with him to join the family there.
On his phone, Fahed has photos of his eight-month-old sister, who he has never met. “She was born and I have never seen her,” he said.
He misses his family every day, but is worried that, as a Syrian, he would be discriminated against in Dubai. He said his uncle and a cousin who both worked there were recently dismissed from their jobs.
“Sometimes I am angry and sad that I came here. I live with six people in one room and I can’t do anything,” he said. “But I want to be a businessman, like my father. I must complete my life.”
Hamouda: ‘I didn’t want to kill anyone’
On a patch of land near a busy motorway, security guards wander between containers stacked two and three stories high to form makeshift apartment blocks in one of Hamburg’s largest camps for migrants and refugees.
Seventeen-year-old Hamouda has decorated the walls of his small container with cheap paintings and drawings, bargains from a local market. All he has from his home in Aleppo is a roll-on cologne and a wooden bead necklace, a gift from his school sweetheart.
He has lived here since October and wants to make it feel like home. His parents, sisters and brother are still in Aleppo. “I’m the baby,” said the youngest of seven siblings with a shy smile.
Like many teenage boys who have travelled alone to Europe, he left Syria to escape being enlisted for military service when he turned 18.
“I didn’t want to kill anyone and I didn’t want to be killed,” he explained. “I would like to have stayed, but the situation there is very dangerous.”
All of his close friends had left for Europe. They are now scattered across Norway, Sweden, Austria and Germany.
A photo captures the small party his family threw before he left; his mum is smiling in front of a table with a chocolate cake and dishes of food. These goodbye parties, held when it seems safe enough for people to gather, have become routine in Aleppo. There used to be two million people in the city, Hamouda said, which is roughly the same number as Hamburg. Now, however, most of have fled the city.
His father fixes watches and couldn’t do much for his son, other than give him some money to help pay the smugglers. When his family decided he should leave, his older brother, Fares, a 30-year-old plumber who feared being re-enlisted, agreed to go with him.
As a minor, Hamouda can’t sign for anything, Fares explained. It has made getting papers more complicated for his older brother, who has to navigate the immigration process for them both. When he turns 18 this month, Hamouda will be responsible for doing everything for himself.
Hamouda reflected on the things he misses from home – the daily bickering with his father, who thought it was too dangerous for Hamouda to go out and play with his friends, and shopping with his mother.
“I miss my parents – that’s what I miss,” he said. “My brother takes care of me now. He tries to make it like my parents, but it’s not the same.”
The day before I met him, air strikes on Aleppo had turned a hospital to rubble. Since then, bombs have been dropping closer and closer to his house. All he can do is keep calling to check if his family is safe.
“There is heavy shelling on a neighbourhood nearby,” his father told him over the phone. The same day, the father of one of Hamouda’s friends was killed in the bombing.
Sitting on his bed in his container room, he draws the hashtag #Aleppo_is_burning in pink highlighter pen on one of his school books, with sad faces and missiles falling from the sky, a hospital in flames as stick figures carry a gurney towards its doors.
“It’s dangerous there,” said Hamouda, who asked that his family not be named. “We can’t talk that much on the phone; my father has to use a code to explain the situation is not good. We avoid talking about any details.”
When he takes the train across Hamburg to school, he sometimes sees parents with their children. It makes him feel homesick, he said.
“When I see people my age with their family, it makes me sad.
“It’s difficult without my parents. If the situation calms down, I will go back.”