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Syrian Soccer Player Omar Zarzour's Journey To America09:21
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(Courtesy Omar Zarzour)
(Courtesy Omar Zarzour)

For 26-year-old Syrian national Omar Zarzour, soccer is more than just a game — it's a bond that connects him to his home, his family and his past.

Omar grew up outside of Damascus in the town of Harasta. His love for soccer was something he developed early on.

"My mom told me to go pick up or buy something from the grocery store," Omar says. "And I see kids playing. I forgot what my mom told me and I start playing with the kids. Then my mom got angry. Like, she was worried about me. Like, ‘Hey, what happened?’ You know, she’s worried because I took so long. Then she knows that, naturally, I'm with the ball."

Emad Zarzour, Omar’s father, played center-back for one of the biggest clubs in Syria. He also had the honor of representing his country at the national level. Omar idolized his dad. He looked to him for guidance, advice and soccer expertise. But Emad’s playing career ended long before Omar was born.

So, when they played together for the first time ...

"My dad, he's fat," Omar says. "Like, I was so amazed the high level he had. Still have the touch for the ball."

As a coach, Omar’s father didn't mess around.

"Ah, no," Omar says. "He's army-style."

Emad would come to Omar’s games and yell instructions at him from the stands.

"The meaning, I'm going to say is like, ‘Aom shis helak,’ " Omar says. "Like, ‘Hey, stand up and do better,’ you know? In aggressive way."

But off the field was a different story.

"I'm not saying he's really soft on me, no," Omar says. "But I've never lied at him. And whenever I do something, I'm being honest with him. It's good relationship between son and dad."

Emad Zarzour (center) playing professional soccer in Syria. (Courtesy Omar Zarzour)
Emad Zarzour (center) playing professional soccer in Syria. (Courtesy Omar Zarzour)

At the age of 14, Omar joined Al-Wahda Sports Club, one of the top teams in Syria. Outside of soccer, he dreamed of attending the local university and marrying his high school sweetheart. But a lot would change over the next four years.

Civil War

In 2011, the tension in Syria reached a head. Government troops led by President Bashar al-Assad began clashing with civilians.

"Imagine yourself, you've never heard gunshot in all your life," Omar says. "And you just start hearing heavy weapons. And people dying. And dead bodies in the street. Blood on the street. Moms screaming. Moms shouting. People crying. It's just really bad memories.

"I lost a lot of my friends too, which — that is the hardest part. Just being in a war, like, sometime you can’t sleep. You never know what’s going to happen. You never know your next day you will be alive or not.

"I remember one day. Literally, it was such a quiet day.  I was in my bedroom and was on my laptop checking internet. And all of a sudden I hear, literally, the building behind me, like, ‘Boom.’ Like, something explode. And that happened a lot. I'm talking about just the first time."

Most days, the fighting was so bad that Omar couldn't even leave the house. It became unsafe to play soccer or attend university. Omar stayed as far away from the violence as possible.

“I'm against any person who is willing to kill any innocent person.”

Omar Zarzour

"I'm against anyone who's killing innocent person," Omar says. "Because the innocent people who pay the price for everything. Not even the rivals. Not even the government. I'm just a human being. I'm with the human beings. I'm against any person who is willing to kill any innocent person."

Omar’s high school girlfriend, the girl he planned to marry, was a U.S. citizen. When the fighting broke out, she left for America. Omar knew that if he wanted to achieve the goals he had set for himself, he’d have to leave Syria, too.

Omar had friends in the neighboring country of Jordan, so he decided that it would be the best place for him to move — at least until he could figure out something more permanent. Crossing the border by land was very dangerous. So Omar flew to Lebanon and then to Jordan.

There, he tried out for one of the teams in the Jordanian Pro League.

"But in that moment, I didn't have the chance to keep going," Omar says.

Omar was working 16-hour days selling shoes.

"Some people take advantage of you because you’re Syrian," Omar says. " ‘You have to work extra. We pay you less.’ But you don’t have any other choice. You have to work hard to provide and help your family."

Omar was determined to make a life for himself and save up enough money to bring his family to Jordan. But the fighting intensified back home in Syria.

"They had an agreement, between the government and the rivals, to stop the conflict for one hour," Omar says. "And anyone to leave safe, they have the choice to. So my dad, and my mom and my two sisters — literally, they just took some clothes on and some of our documents and left."

The family reunited in Jordan, where they were granted refugee status. But Omar knew he’d be leaving again soon.

"My dream’s more than just working, I want to accomplish something," Omar says. "I want to do something better for my family."

A New Life 

Omar contemplated walking thousands of miles to Europe or taking a boat to Egypt.

"My mom refused the idea to go to Egypt and go through that trip, which is so dangerous," Omar says.

That’s when Omar’s high school girlfriend offered to help. She told him ...

" ‘You're going to come over here,’ " Omar remembers.  " ‘We start new life here, and, you know, you can continue your education. Then we can be together.’ "

Omar Zarzour hugs his mom goodbye at an airport in Jordan. (Courtesy Omar Zarzour)
Omar Zarzour hugs his mom goodbye at an airport in Jordan. (Courtesy Omar Zarzour)

They got engaged, and Omar received a fiancée visa to come to the United States. From an airport in Jordan, Omar said goodbye to his family and boarded a plane to Los Angeles, California.

"The last time I saw my family when I came to U.S. — of course, crying," Omar says. "And to be honest, I've never seen my dad crying so bad. I mean, you know, you never consider that moment or think about that moment until you have it, you know? I don’t know why we always wait until the last moment to express our feelings. It was sad. But at the same time, it was good, because I'm going to see the person I loved."

Finally, Omar was back on track to fulfill his dreams of playing soccer, attending college and marrying his childhood sweetheart.

"I have a great respect for this country and for the people as well," Omar says. "Because they treat you as a human being, not as where you came from, what your religion is. They just treat you as a human being. Which is ... what we missing in my country."

But life in America wasn’t without its challenges. Omar struggled to adjust.

"As a newcomer to the United States, you have to learn — maybe improve your English," Omar says. "To have more connections. To find better opportunity, it takes time."

The relationship between Omar and his fiancée became strained.

"When you love someone and you cannot provide them the lifestyle she wants, it's kind of hard," Omar says. "Unfortunately, things didn’t work between us. We broke up in peaceful way. We had a great respect between each other and we, both of us, wish the best of luck for each of us."

Even though the breakup was amicable, Omar was struggling to find balance in his life. His status in the country was no longer guaranteed. He was worried about his family back in Jordan. He was unfamiliar with the LA area. And, for the first time in his life, he was without soccer.

"When I came to United States, six months — I didn’t touch the ball," Omar says. "I was so angry."

LA10

One day, Omar heard there might be a pick-up game at a nearby field. He wasn't familiar with the bus system, but he wasn't going to let that stop him. After a few Google searches, he put his cleats in his bag and set off to find the game.

He never made it there. But looking out the bus window, he saw another field with people playing on it.

"And I told the driver, ‘Hey! Hey! Stop here!’ " Omar says. "And he told me, ‘This is not a stop.’ And I say, ‘I don’t care. Stop right here.’ "

He was over 7,000 miles from Syria — but on that field, he was home.

Omar kept coming back and playing as much pick-up soccer as his schedule allowed. And the more he played, the more he missed competing at a high level.

"It’s killing me," Omar says. "I want to do something better in soccer. So on Instagram, I saw LA Roma."

LA Roma was a semiprofessional club in the United Premier Soccer League.

"And they have the tryout," Omar says. "So I went to the tryout, LA Roma. And since the first day, he told me told me like, ‘Hey — you’re in.’ "

Omar joined in 2017. He quickly became the team favorite, known by his teammates for his positive outlook. Then, in 2018, Alessandro Del Piero, the former Juventus F.C. superstar and World Cup champion with Italy, purchased the team and re-branded it LA10.

Omar Zarzour, and his teammates, pose for a picture with Alessandro Del Piero. (Courtesy Omar Zarzour)
Omar Zarzour, and his teammates, pose for a picture with Alessandro Del Piero. (Courtesy Omar Zarzour)

"I never, ever imagined I’m going to meet Del Piero," Omar says. "It was like, it's a dream to be part of this team."

Omar began his third season with the club this spring. He plays defense, like his dad.

"I'm enjoying the moment," Omar says. "I'm enjoying being with this club. I'm really proud of me and my teammates as well. We want to accomplish something."

Omar has applied for legal status in the United States. When he’s not playing soccer, he works as a personal banker at Wells Fargo. He’s saving up money to help his family back in Jordan. And even despite President Donald Trump’s travel ban, he hopes to one day bring them here to the States.

"This is my dream," Omar says. "This is my dream, to be together."

This segment aired on March 23, 2019.

Niko Emack Twitter Assistant Producer, Only A Game
Niko Emack was an assistant producer for NPR’s "Only A Game."

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