Refugee Trail Fame A Trip, a Fall and a Whole New Life

One kick was all it took to make Osama Mohsen, a professional soccer coach from Syria, into one of the most famous refugees to arrive in Europe last year. After a Hungarian camerawoman sent Mohsen tumbling, his life took an unexpected turn.

By Ralf Hoppe

REUTERS

A short, stocky man in a brown jacket is running through a field along the Hungarian-Serbian border, not far from the town of Röszke. In his left hand, he is carrying a cloth shopping bag with the German words, "Bio macht schön" ("organic makes you beautiful"). In his other arm, he is carrying his crying, 7-year-old son, Said. Sewn into the man's underwear is $600. His name is Osama Abdul Mohsen, 53, and he is a physical education teacher and soccer coach by trade, and a Syrian refugee by circumstance.

The date is Sept. 8, 2015, a day on which Mohsen's life would take a decisive turn.

He and his son Said are two of hundreds of thousands of people who made their way to Europe in 2015 in search of a safer or more humane or generally better life. Some refugees' stories end in tragedy. Nearly 4,000 refugees either drowned in the Mediterranean in 2015 or are still missing. But some stories have a happy end. The story of Mohsen and his son is one of them.

On the field at Röszke, or Reske, as the Serbians call it, somewhere between 1,000 and 1,500 people have gathered. In addition to the many refugees, there are hundreds of Hungarian police officers, journalists and camera teams. Buses sometimes appear to shuttle refugees to Budapest, but there are never enough seats.

The police have apparently been ordered to keep the refugees on the field and under control, but there is little indication their efforts are working. Things are chaotic; everyone seems to be running and shouting.

The sky above the field is gray. At night, the temperature has already begun to drop to just two or three degrees above freezing.

Mohsen and his son, the last two people left on the field, have spent the last few nights outside. Said has developed a cough and perhaps a light fever as well. They had a blanket, but it was stolen that morning. Said can likely spend another night or two outside before he gets seriously ill, but not many.

Getting Desperate

The two are from the city of Deir ez-Zor in eastern Syria and are hoping to make their way to Germany, where Mohsen's 18-year-old son is already waiting. Perhaps they'll continue on to Denmark or Sweden. Thus far, fate has smiled upon them: They haven't been robbed, aside from the blanket, and they have made swift progress. They also still have some money left and, most importantly, they are still alive.

Despite their good fortune, this Tuesday has been a low point in their journey. The police haven't let them continue their journey for two days and Mohsen is getting desperate. And things are about to get worse.

Mohsen discovers a break in the police ranks and runs for it -- only for a camerawoman named Petra Laszlo to casually stick out her leg in a motion that is half kick and half trip. Mohsen stumbles, then falls. Said screams.

Laszlo works as a reporter in Röszke for a right-wing broadcaster, but who knows, maybe she identifies more strongly as a Hungarian than a journalist. Maybe she feels like she is defending her country and helping the police. Maybe she totally blacks out. Or maybe she's just not a very nice person. DER SPIEGEL tried numerous times to contact her for an interview or a statement, but those efforts were in vain. Laszlo gives the impression of a woman who has completely withdrawn. After all, the scene of her tripping Mohsen was caught on video and viewed millions of times. She lost her job and her life fell apart.

Mohsen gets back on his feet and begins shouting at a nearby police officer whom he mistakes for the offender. "That is the act of a dog!" he yells.

Mohsen and Said finally make it to a grove at the end of the field and by nightfall, they are walking along a road to Budapest. They have no idea their fall was caught on tape, much less that they would soon be famous for it.

Over the course of his life, Osama Abdul Mohsen had very little reason to suspect that his destiny was at all special. He grew up in the village of Mahatta al-Zania near the Iraqi-Syrian border as the son of a truck driver, the eighth of 10 children. At the time, things in Syria were changing. Osama's father could only write his name with difficulty, but Mohsen studied in Aleppo and opted for what was then an exotic occupation in the Arab world: soccer coach.

After serving in the military, he got married and had four children, became a physical education teacher, coached youth teams and became a trainer in the professional league. The pressure and the humiliation that the Syrian dictatorship brought with it -- the regime's constant interference in athletic affairs, the manipulation of games, the surveillance by the secret police -- were made up for by the freedom Mohsen felt during games.

Months of Bombardment

"Football is like life," Mohsen says. "Between kickoff and the final whistle, just like between birth and death, the possibilities are endless." You just have to find them, he adds.

Mohsen had come to terms with his life. He was content. But then the Arab Spring came, followed by war.

Memories of months under constant bombardment stick with him to this day. When the shelling began -- the high-pitched wail of bombs plummeting to earth three or four times a day -- Mohsen would grab his bag filled with water, matches and a first aid kit, pick up Said and usher his family into an improvised bomb shelter in the basement. Their apartment was in the Old City -- a popular target for ground artillery that had been set up in a siege ring around Deir ez-Zor. It was only a matter of time before Mohsen's family would be hit.

In early 2012, it was still possible to escape from the city. But one needed money to flee -- money that Mohsen didn't have. One evening, his brother came to his apartment, opened a cupboard in the living room, put a wad of banknotes inside and said: Here are $3,500. It's everything I have. If you need it, it's yours.

It was enough money for the whole family to flee; and so began what would become a three-year odyssey.

The first stop on their journey was the Turkish city of Mersin on the Mediterranean Sea. They would have stayed but the only jobs Mohsen was able to find didn't pay livable wages. So the family moved on, but not all at once. They decided that Mohsen's wife would stay in Turkey with their daughter and their oldest son, while Muhammad, the second-oldest, would flee to Europe via Italy. Mohsen and Said, the youngest, would take the Balkan route.

Which is how they ended up on the field at Röszke on Sept. 8, 2015.

The border crossing in Röszke is located 164 kilometers (102 miles) from Budapest and is one of the few places along the border between Serbia and Hungary that is still open. Police officers have the field surrounded, but it covers an area roughly the size of three football fields and there are gaps in their ranks.

A Hungarian Camerawoman

The police have been using pepper spray and batons, although no one has been brutally beaten yet. This may have something to do with the presence of journalists: Some 30 reporters and TV crews have gathered. One of the journalists' names is Stephan Richter, who works for the German broadcaster RTL.

Stephan Richter, a lanky, friendly man, has a problem. Amid all the chaos, he lost his cameraman. Close by, Richter sees a Hungarian camerawoman who works for N1TV, a network in Budapest, wearing a mask over her mouth. It's Petra Laszlo, a blonde, middle-aged woman who looks to be in her mid-forties. She's wearing a light blue shirt and jeans.

Richter pulls out his iPhone and lifts it above his head. He wants to be sure to at least get a few shots, even if his cameraman is nowhere to be found.

Meanwhile, Mohsen has begun his dash -- as inconspicuously as possible -- to the grove at the far end of the field.

Mohsen doesn't know much about Germany except that he's looking to make it his new home. But he can recite the following names by heart: Neuer, Boateng, Lahm, Rafinha, Badstuber, Alonso, Martinez, Vidal, Müller, Coman, Lewandowski, all of whom play for Bayern Munich. He also knows the teams from Borussia Dortmund, HSV, Schalke and half of the Bundesliga. His knowledge of Hungary, on the other hand, is non-existent. But he can sense hostility.

As he tries to escape the throng of police, the Hungarian camerawoman sticks her foot out and trips him. Richter, the German TV journalist, records the whole thing.

That same evening, Richter tweets out the video. It gets 945,000 clicks. On Facebook, a post with the same video initially gets 95,000 clicks. Once the British broadcaster Channel 4 catches wind and does its own report using Richter's video, those click counts begin to skyrocket. Richter, who has been tracking the video's resonance on social media, says the clip has thus far been viewed between 30 and 40 million times.

The clip has all the makings of a good viral video. It's short and encapsulates a dramatic crisis in a digestible format: A refugee runs, a mean blonde lady kicks him to the ground, but he gets back up.

In all its simplicity, the video also delivers a certain moral appeal: This isn't how Europeans are supposed to act. This crosses a line. Petra Laszlo may have in fact done more for the refugee cause than all the Continent's admonishers and preachers together.

At the very least, she changed Mohsen's fate.

An Invitation to Spain

A man in Spain is one of those who watches the recording of Mohsen being tripped. His name is Miguel Angel Galan and he is the president of the Spanish association of football coaches, known as "Cenafe Escuelas."

With word that Mohsen was a soccer enthusiast already spreading, Galan -- a hundred kilometers away, in his chic office at the Plaza de Espana in Getafe, Spain -- cannot help but feel like he and the poor man in the video share a bond, as if they are somehow colleagues. Galan reacted like an outraged coach protesting a particularly unfair foul.

"It was immediately clear to me that we had to help," Galan says. "This guy was one of us, so we invited him to Spain."

Galan's move, of course, is not completely free of hubris. And it begs the question: If Mohsen coached some other sport such as, say, pole vaulting, would he have been left to his fate?

Regardless, when Mohsen arrives in Germany, he receives a phone call he says he will never forget. Galan is on the line, speaking through a translator. Would Mohsen care to come to Madrid and attend a school for coaches? With an employment contract, language course, apartment, the works? Mohsen is nearly speechless.

In Munich, Mohsen meets his son Muhammad, who had managed to make it there as well, and together, they take a train to Madrid. Miguel Galan has organized a party to celebrate their arrival at the Puerta de Atocha train station. Days later, Mohsen will have his picture taken with superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Said, Mohsen's youngest son, will even be allowed to accompany Ronaldo into the stadium before a game. A happy ending, at least for the time being.

Several weeks later, Mohsen is sitting in a creaky chair underneath a dim lamp in the living room of a small apartment in a Madrid suburb. The apartment was provided to him.

Said and Muhammad have gone to bed; they have school tomorrow. Mohsen needs to clean the kitchen, wash the dishes, tidy up, take the trash downstairs, but he's too exhausted. He never had much practice cleaning up. There was always his mother, and then his wife, who took care of things. Arab men don't generally spend a lot of time in the kitchen.

A Different World

But Mohsen tries his best. He doesn't know how to cook many dishes -- scrambled eggs with tomato are his speciality, and he can manage chicken with beans -- but his kitchen still looks like a tornado hit every time he tries.

The people at "Cenafe Escuelas" found the apartment for Mohsen and furnished it with bedsheets, towels, kitchen utensils, chairs and a TV. They were also the ones who got Mohsen his work permit and gave him a job. Officially, he is supposed to establish a division that establishes contacts to soccer associations in the Arab world.

For the moment, though, the job is just a facade. Mohsen knows he must first learn the language, which is hard enough as it is. But at least he gets paid just under €2,000 a month. After expenses for rent and food, he's left with between €200 and €300 to send to his wife. Aside from that, his focus is on getting his footing in Spain.

He hasn't quite managed it yet. Even though Getafe, Spain, is his new home, he says he never could have guessed just how different this new world here would be.

While his sons eagerly hit their strides in their new environment, snapping up Spanish vocabulary, learning how paella tastes and how bottle deposits work, their father still has trouble asking about the price of a kilo of tomatoes. These days, he's learning verbs that end in -er and -ar. But when three Spaniards talk among themselves, Mohsen can't understand a word. "It sounds as if stones are raining down on me," he says.

Sometimes, on Saturday afternoons or in the evenings, Mohsen goes to the Getafe sports center, where a dozen different teams go for practice. But when he's there, he feels like a complete stranger. Nobody knows him or says hello. He is never consulted. He is merely a spectator.

For watching football matches, Mohsen prefers the Cafe Marroquin. Its all-male patrons include Moroccans, Egyptians and Tunisians. They sit in front of a flat screen TV either sipping heavily sweetened mint tea or stirring Arabic coffee with jingling spoons. In this place, Arabic is the language of choice. It floats over the men's heads like a canopy and it swells every time a goal is scored.

Fears and Reservations

There are countless other cafes that would be easier to reach from Mohsen's apartment, but at Marroquin, he is welcomed as a friend. He shakes people's hands, pats them on the shoulder and enjoys the soft words, "Salam alaikum," instead of the intimidating hiss of "Buenos dias!"

Mohsen knows that it wouldn't be a good idea to immerse himself in a parallel culture, especially if he wants to work as a soccer coach. He needs to find a place for himself in this other world, in Europe, in Spain.

Mohsen keeps his fears and reservations to himself mostly. Other Syrian refugees live in tents or makeshift shelters; in Beirut they openly beg in the streets. Compared to that, Mohsen is living a life of luxury. He has been referred to as a role model for other Syrian refugees, some of whom have called upon him, asking him for help because they regard him as an important man, someone with influence.

For a short while, the rumors about him were different, nastier. Word spread online that the famous refugee was a sympathizer of the radical Islamist Nusra Front and that he had taken part in violence against Kurds. "I have nothing to do with any of that. I reject all violence on principle," Mohsen says. But he couldn't really defend himself against such accusations, made with no proof whatsoever.

Mohsen's current situation is a bit of a test run, a publicly observable experiment in integration. If he doesn't successfully adapt to a new culture, with all the support and goodwill of his patrons, how can Europe expect it from other refugees?

Mohsen received an apartment, furniture and a language course, but otherwise he was left to his own devices. He spent 50 years of his life in Syria and his life there did little to prepare him for Europe. He needs patience and strength -- but he has largely run out of both in the last few years of his life while on the run. A lot of the time he seems lonely.

'Said Often Asks About His Mother'

Not long ago, he learned that his greatest wish wasn't likely going to be granted right away: There are complications getting his wife and two other children to join him in Spain. Spanish immigration law requires an official certificate that proves family members are in fact related. And it also requires proper identification. These papers can only be procured at the Syrian embassy in Ankara, which has unsurprisingly refused to receive Mohsen's wife.

But without those documents, the Spaniards aren't willing to rubber-stamp the Mohsen family's reunification. The government has been quite adamant in refusing to allow an exception in order to bring together the family of six.

Shortly before Christmas, Galan hosted a press conference alongside his new protege Mohsen. In Mohsen's name, the Spanish coaches association had appealed to Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy in a letter and requested he initiate an accelerated asylum procedure for Mohsen's family. Whether or not the letter will do any good remains to be seen.

Over Christmas, Galan booked a flight for Mohsen so that he could spend at least a few days with the rest of his family in Turkey after being away from them for four months. "Said often asks about his mother," Mohsen says.

Before completely surrendering himself to a life in Europe, Mohsen had hoped to see his family reunited. On the other hand, he says, at least they're all still alive. Many Syrians have not been so lucky.

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Inglenda2 01/13/2016
1. A pebble in the pond can cause many waves
A European woman is seen to be assaulting a refugee. Could Cologne be the backlash?
zzzzooooffff 01/14/2016
2. Football coach or something else?
The article mentions that he was accused of being terrorist for Jabhat al Nusra but leaves it at that. The Kurds accuse him of being an instigator to a 2004 anti Kurdish football brawl in which 50 Kurds were killed and that he later signed up with al Nusra and was involved in the torture of Kurds. They claim he bloated on that on his facebook page which he later then altered. The article quickly brushes that aside or does not even mention it. These are serious allegations that have never been properly investigated.
derÖtze 01/14/2016
3. surprisingly unagitated report
Thanks for this Report for different Points: 1. no bashing due to strict rules of European countries 2. emphasis on problems refugees are facing with the different culture in Europe 3. no full happy end so people can read it, feel well and go Shopping. I hope the family gets reunited wherever and that people claiming for help are supported. Europe has to stick together instead of playing intrigues aiming for the next 5 years in government.
rudolph 01/18/2016
4. Tripping of Refugees
No doubt the camera woman's frustration at seeing her country overrun with migrants and refugees drove her to do this. I can empathise with the plight of the refugees but they do belong in their own countries. All this shows the abject failure the United Nations really is. Anyway, Cologne NYE has changed everything. It has also brought out the covered up fact that 40% of immigrants to Europe commit crimes within a year.
MousScee 04/13/2016
5. Many thanks to Spaniards for their non-indifference towards refugees' problems!
Many thanks to Spaniards for their non-indifference towards refugees' problems! I'd like more poor fellows to learn about Mohsen's experience, and try to move for a better life to Europe. If you are young and full of energy, resettle to Europe! Certainly there will be a lot of problems on your road, as well as, your life in Europe will not be a bed of roses. But this is the unique opportunity to start a normal life, pals! And you should be ready not only to any risk for it, but to any work in order to be out of the horrors of your previous life. Do not fear hard work and everything will be OK!
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