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LOVING THE U.S. WHILE ACHING FOR IRAQ
Professional soccer in the U.S. seems a kind of national orphanage, played as it is by so many refugees from one broken country or another. Chile, Northern Ireland and Liberia—all are represented in the Major (indoor) Soccer League. So is Iraq, in the person of Waad Hirmez, a midfielder for the San Diego Sockers. His family home, standing or not, is only a mile from Saddam Hussein's presidential palace in Baghdad.
At first, the 29-year-old Hirmez seems a less than tragic footnote to the war in the Persian Gulf. He left Iraq for good as a high school student back in 1979 and has returned only once to visit. He has long since gathered his immediate family about him in San Diego. He could scarcely be any more Americanized. A U.S. citizen, he drives a black BMW with vanity plates that read SOKRS 11. He is a crowd favorite, known for his 75-mile-per-hour kicks and his ceremony of climbing over the boards to high-five the crowd. To him Baghdad is a hazy memory.
But Hirmez can travel only so far from his homeland. On a day when Iraq was being pounded by rockets, Hirmez was sitting in the stands after practice when some teammates suddenly pelted him with M&Ms and shouted, "Incoming!" and "SCUD!" The humor was jaw-dropping, but apparently not unusual by soccer standards, and Hirmez joined in. When Victor Nogueira—he's from Mozambique—leaned on the arena air horn and shouted, "Air raid!" Hirmez shouted back, "You are on my terrorist list." But then he said, quietly and abruptly solemn, "They think it's a joke. But I don't think so. It's my blood, too."
Waad had meant to take his mother, Suad, back to Baghdad earlier this year to see the grave of his father, Shakir Ajou. He had been a prosperous contractor in Baghdad, but while the rest of the family migrated to San Diego, Shakir had to stay behind because men were not allowed to leave during the Iran-Iraq war. The last time Waad saw his father was during his brief trip home in 1982. Shakir discouraged his children from visiting after that.
As time went on, the government began taking as much as $30,000 a month from Shakir's bank account for Iraq's war fund. "They called it a donation," Waad says. His father seemed healthy before he died nearly two years ago, at just 61, of "natural causes." Waad believes he died out of sheer disappointment in his country.
Last week Waad went home at night and watched coverage of Baghdad's bombing with his family. There have been reports that the presidential palace has been destroyed. Who knows about the family house? "Luckily my mother doesn't understand English," says Waad. "We don't translate everything. It would kill her, too."
Before Friday evening's game against St. Louis, he asked a reporter about that night's bombing. He seemed confused by the violence. "All those buildings," he said, "probably not standing. Now I won't even have a chance to see my father's grave." His eyes were those of a true orphan.