As winter sets in, the plight of the hundreds of child refugees who arrive daily is getting ever more perilous.
Getafe, Spain – Osama Abdul Mohsen is at first hesitant to speak about the day he became known to millions. Sitting in a bar in Getafe, a town near Madrid, the Syrian refugee shakes his head and says he prefers not to talk at length about Petra Laszlo, the journalist who tripped him as he carried his son in Hungary.
“I am now busy with other things, and I do not want to think about her,” he reflects as he finishes his cup of coffee.
Last year, on September 8, the 56-year-old Syrian football coach appeared in news headlines across the world after footage emerged showing Laszlo, a Hungarian camerawoman, tripping Mohsen and his seven-year-old son Zaid as they ran from local police.
Mohsen, like many of his fellow Syrians, had fled Syria’s civil war and hoped to build a new life for himself and his family in Europe.
Laszlo’s actions provoked global condemnation, but Mohsen says he holds no grudge against her.
Now he lives in Getafe with two of his children. He holds a residency permit, has a job in the CENAFE football coach academy and earns 1,200 euros (around $1,307). His employer also provides an apartment and free Spanish lessons.
Although Mohsen expresses gratitude to CENAFE and the others who have helped him reach and settle in Spain, he appears restless and unhappy. His family is divided. Mohsen’s wife and two other children are in Turkey. Despite repeated assurances from the government, he says they have not received visas to enter Spain.
Waiting on a promise
Mohsen arrived in Spain less than a week after his encounter with Laszlo. Popular outrage over his treatment was still running high, and he was immediately given a visa. Many other Syrian refugees are not as fortunate.
Less than half of those who applied for asylum in Spain in 2015 had their applications accepted. In September 2015, when the European Commission allocated the number of refugees each member state should host over the next two years – in order to diminish the pressure on countries such as Greece and Italy, which have witnessed a massive influx of refugees – Spain was assigned 9,323 asylum seekers. By the end of 2015, only 18 had arrived, according to the Spanish Commission for Refugee Aid.
Mohsen says that he has tried everything to bring his wife and two other children to Spain.
“I am very angry because everything is good here,” he says, referring to the living conditions in the city of 173,000 inhabitants.
“People are nice, and I like my work, but I don’t understand why there are no papers for my family.”
Mohsen and his employer, Miguel Angel Galan, have attempted to put pressure on the Spanish government – writing a letter to the Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy and holding a news conference – but all to no avail.
The problem, Galan explains, lies in a specific article of the country’s immigration law. “To comply with Article 50, we need a series of documents that can only be picked [up] at the Syrian embassy in Beirut,” he says. “But this is impossible because Osama has criticised the regime and it can be dangerous for his family.”
“We hoped that the family would spend the Christmas holiday together, but the Spanish government has not fulfilled their promise,” says Galan from behind his desk at CENAFE’s office.
“They always tell us the same: ‘Soon it will be available’ or that next month for sure [they’ll come], but promises fall on deaf ears.”
Mohsen’s family was briefly united for the first time in more than a year in December. Mohsen, Zaid and 16-year-old Mohammad travelled to Mersin, a city in southern Turkey where Mohsen’s wife and other children live. They spent a week together.
Good living conditions in a friendly town
“Of course I know who he is,” says a waitress at the city-centre cafe beside the building where Mohsen lives. “I haven’t seen him much around here, but we have all heard the news, and in September, we had many journalists asking for him.”
Mohsen and his two sons live in a first-storey apartment with three rooms and a large balcony. It is filled with furniture that appears to have been there for at least a couple of decades.
Zaid is learning Spanish quickly, but his brother, Mohammad, is more shy and it takes him a while to feel confident enough to speak around strangers. Both boys attend school in Getafe and participate in extracurricular activities, but Mohsen says they have not yet fully adapted to life in Spain.
“[Mohammad] is a bit down because he misses his older brother Muhannad a lot; they are close,” Mohsen explains.
The teenager has had a lot of adapting to do in the past couple of years.
In 2014, the family decided that Mohammad should leave Turkey and go to a European country with an old family friend. He ended up in Munich, Germany, where he stayed for nearly a year. He had learned the language and even made friends there.
Sitting in the living room of the apartment as darkness begins to fall on a cold winter’s afternoon, Mohammad begins to speak.
“Germans were very nice to me, and I had adjusted well to the life there,” he says.
“But here in Spain, I do not have many friends.”
When asked if he prefers Germany to Spain, he doesn’t hesitate to answer. “Yes, of course,” he says.
Zaid may have adapted better than his older brother, but it is still difficult for him to be away from his mother. During the first few months that they were in Getafe, Mohsen says, Zaid would cry every night, asking: “Where is Mamma? Where is Mamma?”
Mohsen earns enough to send money to his wife, son and daughter in Turkey, so that their basic needs are met. He says he is grateful to his employer, Galan, who risked prosecution for bringing him and his sons to Madrid without legal permits.
Galan remembers how he came to learn about Mohsen.
It was the evening of September 8, and he was sitting in his living room after a day of work at CENAFE.
“I was scrolling [through] my Facebook homepage when I saw the video in which Osama was tripped,” he recalls.
Five days later, he read an article in the Spanish daily El Mundo and discovered that Mohsen had been a football coach in the Syrian Premier League. By the time that story was published, Mohsen and Zaid had already reached Mohammad in Germany.
“As a football coach, I knew I had to do something,” says Galan.
On the wall behind his desk is a patchwork of newspaper clippings from articles in which Galan has appeared. Most are about Mohsen.
Less than 72 hours after Galan read the article, Mohsen and his two sons were posing for pictures with him at Madrid’s main train station.
“We hugged as if we had known each other for a long time,” Galan recalls.
But Galan’s actions were illegal. Article 318bis of the Spanish Penal Code states that “helping a person who is not a national from the European Union to enter Spanish territory … will be punished with … imprisonment from three months to one year.”
According to Spain’s National Institute of Statistics, in 2013, more than 200 people were found guilty of violating this article.
Galan had been warned that he could be found guilty of committing a crime, but says he didn’t feel intimidated.
“When politicians aren’t able to solve problems, there should be civil disobedience,” Galan says.
“Sometimes, the end justifies the means. If we have to disobey a law to help fellow human beings, so be it,” he concludes.
Mohsen says he wants to remain in Spain, but that he feels lonely here. He and his two sons are currently the only Syrians living in Getafe. He has previously said that he would like to form a football team in Austria or Germany, where many more Syrians have found refuge.
“I don’t want to seem extremely critical, we had very nice moments here,” he says, recalling, in particular, the time Real Madrid Football Club invited them to visit its sporting facilities and to meet the team. Zaid even entered the Santiago Bernabeu, the club’s stadium, hand-in-hand with his idol Cristiano Ronaldo.
Mohammad smiles for the first time as he describes that “daydream”.
“It was incredible, surreal. We even entered the locker room and spoke to some of the players,” he says.
His father gets emotional as he remembers it.
But, for Mohsen, those good memories cannot erase the pain of being separated from his wife and two other children. He is increasingly weighing the options available to him.
Although, together with Galan, he continues to hope that the Spanish government will give the rest of his family visas, he does not rule out the possibility that he may have to leave Spain.
“I would do anything so we can live together,” he says. “And if that means we have to move to another country, we will do so.”
Follow Nicolas Lupo on Twitter: @niluso