After The Trip Seen 'Round The World, Syrian Refugee Builds A New Life

Jan 22, 2016
Originally published on January 22, 2016 11:06 am

Last September, Miguel Ángel Galán was busy in his office south of Madrid when he happened to glance up at a TV on in the background.

He was shocked by what he saw: footage of a Hungarian TV camerawoman kicking migrants and refugees as they scrambled across a field on the Serbia-Hungary border. A Syrian man, carrying his child in his arms, tripped and fell to the ground.

"It made me so angry! I felt such repugnance for that journalist, and such compassion for the man with his child in his arms. So I started searching the Internet," Galán says. "I found out the refugee was a soccer coach back home in Syria. And that's the moment when I realized I might be able to help."

Galán runs Cenafe Academy, the biggest soccer coaching school in Europe, headquartered in Getafe, south of Madrid.

"At the time, we were looking for an external relations rep — someone who could strengthen our ties with the Arab world, America and China," says Galán.

So he contacted an Arabic translator to help and started working the phones — until he finally reached Osama Abdul Mohsen, who by then had arrived in Germany.

Would he like to move to Spain? Galán asked him.

Within days, Abdul Mohsen arrived in Madrid with two of his sons, ages 17 and 8 — and a new job at Cenafe Academy, which sponsored his work visa. The Spanish government has granted them asylum.

"I am very happy — very, very happy! Thank you," Abdul Mohsen told reporters who'd gathered at Madrid's Atocha train station in the middle of a September night to watch him arrive.

Since then, Abdul Mohsen and his sons have become local celebrities. They were VIP guests at a Real Madrid game and met their idol, soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo.

The family now lives a five-minute walk from Abdul Mohsen's new job, in a spacious, furnished apartment paid for by Cenafe Academy. On the mantel sits a soccer ball signed by all the Real Madrid players.

In addition to providing his flat, Abdul Mohsen's job pays him about $1,300 a month — more than 1.5 times the Spanish minimum wage. He manages to send about two-thirds of that to his wife and two other children, who are still in Turkey, awaiting asylum in Spain.

"I thought at first that maybe it was a joke!" Abdul Mohsen says, laughing. "But after another telephone call and another, and offers of a job and house, I thought, this is better for my future. So I came immediately."

Abdul Mohsen says he rarely thinks about Petra Laszlo, the Hungarian camerawoman who tripped him. She lost her job with a right-wing affiliated channel after the footage emerged, and has since apologized. She has also threatened to sue the media for damaging her reputation.

"I don't know, but I think she just doesn't like refugees," Abdul Mohsen says, shrugging.

He says he feels lucky to have escaped war in his hometown of Deir ez-Zor, Syria — now under siege by ISIS militants — and to have found work and asylum in Europe. So many other Syrians have not.

But on the other hand, "I feel unlucky because of what happened to my son. It's very, very difficult," he says.

After Zaid, then 7, was kicked by Laszlo, he grew very ill, with a fever. They were sleeping outdoors in Hungary and then Austria, and it took days to find him a doctor along the migrant trail. Zaid still cries every night.

"He's very small, and he needs his mama always," Abdul Mohsen says. "At night, it's always, 'Papa, I need mama, I need mama!' It's very difficult. He cries for an hour every night, and also in the morning."

Zaid's teachers say he's doing well in school — learning Spanish quickly and making friends. Speaking a mix of Arabic and Spanish, the boy says he cannot remember his life in Syria or Turkey, where the family lived for two years after fleeing Deir ez-Zor. He just misses his mother.

Abdul Mohsen is desperate to reunite with his wife and two other children, a son, 18, and a daughter, 13.

"In Spain, I am very happy. All the people here have been very, very good to me," he says. "But I cannot live alone."

The Spanish government won't grant his wife asylum without certain paperwork, which she hasn't been able to get from the Syrian Embassy in Turkey. So Abdul Mohsen says he's considering moving to another country — possibly back to Germany, though his dream is to go to the U.S. But he'd go anywhere safe where his family might be reunited.

For now, Abdul Mohsen and his sons are learning Spanish and trying to adapt. Zaid tags along to evening practice sessions, where his father coaches Mohammad's local soccer team.

Using gestures and broken Spanish, Abdul Mohsen drills the players: "Pase corto -- short pass! Pase largo — long pass! Correr — run! I know what the most important Spanish words are for me," Abdul Mohsen says, laughing.

Then he sprints back to his team on the soccer field — his one real refuge, where language doesn't matter.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Back when migrants were pouring into Europe, a Hungarian TV camerawoman was caught on video tripping a Syrian refugee and his son as they scrambled across the border between Hungary and Serbia. That video went viral. The woman lost her job, and the man she kicked - well, his life has also changed drastically since then. Reporter Lauren Frayer caught up with him in Spain, where he's been granted asylum.

LAUREN FRAYER: Last September, Miguel Angel Galan was working in his office south of Madrid when he happened to glance up at the TV...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LAUREN FRAYER: ...And first laid eyes on Osama Abdul Mohsen being tripped by a Hungarian TV camerawoman.

MIGUEL GALAN: (Speaking Spanish).

LAUREN FRAYER: "It made me so angry I started searching the Internet," he says. "I found out he was a soccer coach back home in Syria, and that's the moment when I realized I might be able to help." Galan runs Cenafe Academy, the biggest soccer coaching school in Europe, which was looking for someone to boost its ties with Arab coaches. He started working the phones, finally reached Abdul Mohsen in Germany, and offered him a job. Weeks later, he was here with two of his sons, aged 17 and 8.

OSAMA MOHSEN: I'm very happy - very, very happy. Thank you.

LAUREN FRAYER: They've become local celebrities and got to meet their idol, soccer superstar Cristiano Rinaldo.

LAUREN FRAYER: Hello, salam aleykum.

LAUREN FRAYER: Abdul Mohsen and his sons now live in a furnished apartment paid for by the soccer academy.

OSAMA ABDUL MOHSEN: I think at first it maybe a joke. But another telephone, telephone, telephone, and your job and your house and anything - just come here. That is better for my future.

LAUREN FRAYER: He says he rarely thinks about Petra Laszlo, the Hungarian camerawoman who has since apologized for tripping him.

OSAMA ABDUL MOHSEN: I don't know, but I think this woman don't like refugees.

LAUREN FRAYER: The whole journey was traumatic. Abdul Mohsen says his youngest son, Zaid, still cries every night.

OSAMA ABDUL MOHSEN: That's very small. He need mama always. He need mama always. In night, when you sleep, baba need mama. Baba, I need mama. It's very, very, very difficult.

LAUREN FRAYER: Abdul's wife and two other children are stuck in Turkey. Spain won't grant them asylum without papers that they haven't been able to get from the Syrian Embassy. Abdul Mohsen says he's grateful for Spain's hospitality, but if he can't be reunited with his family, they might have to go elsewhere.

OSAMA ABDUL MOHSEN: I hope Washington, New York, Chicago - direct I go. (Laughter) Yes.

LAUREN FRAYER: For now, though, this 52-year-old man is adapting to life here and learning to cook.

OSAMA ABDUL MOHSEN: I ask my wife, and she told me, take this chicken and - I cooking. Yes.

LAUREN FRAYER: Is he a good cook?

MOHAMMAD MOHSEN: Yes, if he needs.

LAUREN FRAYER: His son Mohammad says he's not a bad cook, actually. The boys are learning Spanish. They all go to Mohammad's soccer practice together. His dad is the coach, of course.

OSAMA ABDUL MOHSEN: (Speaking Spanish)

LAUREN FRAYER: Short pass, long pass, run - Abdul Mohsen knows the most important Spanish words here, he says, laughing, and heads back onto the field, his one real refuge where language doesn't matter. For NPR News, I'm Lauren Frayer in Getafe, Spain. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.