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 — 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 stuck in Turkey, still 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.