The past few months there has been only one name the Iraqi fans have been waiting to see pull on the green jersey of Al-Montakhab, the number No.9 of Major League Soccer (MLS) club Columbus Crew, Justin Meram. They will get their first glimpses of the player at the Gulf Cup in Riyadh, which starts on Friday.
It’s been a prolonged wait for the MLS player. It was two years ago when he was contacted by one inquisitive Iraqi fan scouring the world’s globe for footballers of Iraqi descent. Meram had no idea that a simple question, six words “Hey buddy, are you originally Iraqi?” would see him realise his childhood dream of representing the land of his ancestors.
Nothing can hold him back, not even the deranged long-haired unwashed marauding 7th century styled holey fighters of the ISIS, ISIL, IS (Da’ish) army (riding on their Japanese-made pick-up trucks and carrying the US-made weapons of the kufar) could prevent him from being issued his Iraqi passport after they had overran and marched on the city of Mosul, the land of Meram’s forefathers, in August.
Iraqi activist Steven Nabil living in the United States, attempting to bridge the gap and help aide Iraqi Christian, Muslim and Yazidi refugees who were escaping the persecution of ISIS who had invaded their towns and villages, made a full hearted video plea to the Iraqi Prime Minister and to all of the Iraqi government to help the player get his passport. He spoke about the town of Tel Kaif where Meram’s family were originally from, which was under the control of Daish, making it impossible for the player to gain his papers to process his Iraqi passport, with his close family members of the player living in tents.
Nabil concluded that the displaced people from Tel Kaif and other towns living in tents were feeling that their nation didn’t want them and asked what would they feel if they saw a footballer from their own town play for Iraq?
After previously using the mughtarabeen (Expatriates) to pacify the fans, the intentions from the Iraqi coach Hakim Shaker to get Meram his passport seemed sincere, after the Iraqi FA dispatched team manager Basil Gorgis to the United States in March this year, to meet Meram’s parents and finalise his documents for the player’s Iraqi passport. Basil, a former Iraqi international who played at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico, attended his club’s MLS match with Philadelphia Union in Ohio, which Columbus Crew won 2-1, Meram came on after 80 minutes and after the match which Crew won 2-1, the team manager met with Meram and his coach Gregg Berhalter, where the player expressed his desire to play for Iraq.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi coach met with the Director of Iraqi Passport Office, Major General Tahsin Abdul-Razzaq Flaih, regarding the issuance of passport to the expatriate player, to speed up the process. The following week there were reports that his papers were discarded on an FA desk while Hakim was declaring the utmost urgency of the matter, the passport procedures were never completed.
Five months passed and with ISIS taking over the province of Nineveh, where Meram’s parents originated from, Basil Gorgis explained that the steps to issue the player’s passport had passed “a number of obstacles” due to the events in Mosul however the FA’s Kamil Zaghir pointed out that they had asked Mosul-based FA referee Sabhan Ahmed to complete Meram’s papers and noted that the FA had the support of the Chaldean Sacred Heart Church in Tel Kaif (Tel Keppe) who confirmed the birth certificates of Meram’s father, which was registered in their church records in addition to his mother who was born in Mosul.
Under the Council of Ministers Iraqi Nationality Law No. 26 of 2006 on the possibility of obtaining the Iraqi nationality, the law mentions that “a person shall be considered Iraqi if, he/she is born to an Iraqi father or an Iraqi mother” and with the US State Department, the Iraqi consulate in Michigan and local Mosul authorities confirming the nationality of Meram’s parents, it meant Meram could apply for an Iraqi passport qualifying through his parents.
However it was only until Basil Gorgis met with a member of the Iraqi Parliament, Jumaa Diwan Al-Bahadli at the Nationality Directorate to discuss the matter of Meram’s papers, that the long-running process was completed and days later on October 15, Meram was issued with his national identification card and the following day, Justin Hikmat Aziz’s passport was issued and officially became eligible to play for Asood Al-Rafidain.
‘We want Justin’
A social media campaign was launched on Facebook and a hashtag #WeWantJustinMeram or #كلنا نريد ميرام was started by a group of Iraqi fans to get the Iraq FA to notice the Iraqi talent in the MLS. The main drive for Justin’s inclusion in the national side came from the Iraqi-Players.com website, a site which highlights and promotes Iraqi footballers based around the world,
On their site it describes itself as a sports website with “a voluntary working committee” that have took it upon themselves to search for Iraqi professional players around the world, “to put the spotlight on them” and “build bridges between them and the sporting community”. And importantly to send a message to the Iraqi sports media and to give a clear picture for all officials and coaches of the Iraqi national team to choose the best and see who is the most suitable to wear the Iraqi national jersey, “that is the right of all sons of our one nation.”
April this year, the founder and owner of the website, Dubai-based student Yousif Saeed Al-Khafaji was appointed as an Iraq FA coordinator under the lengthy title “Coordinator of the files of expatriate players” and it was Al-Khafaji who had quizzed Meram on July 22, 2012 over his Iraqi ancestry.
Meram is not the first expatriate as the Iraqi sports media has called them, to play for Iraq after the 2003 War. Under German coach Wolfgang Sidka in June 2011, seven professionals Europe-based players were called up for a training camp in Arbil, after an engineer named Akam Qader and two other Iraqi football fans had handed over a dossier they had compiled of players of Iraqi origin plying their trade in Europe.
Austrian national Murad Gerdi, playing in Yemen was the first to play for Iraq, then came former Feyenoord graduate Osama Rashid, then Ahmed Yasin from the Swedish club Orebro SK, German-born defender David Haidar and recently English based Yaser Kasim has made his bow for the national side. Yasin and Kasim are now both regular members of the Iraqi squad and will play alongside Meram at the Gulf Cup.
Destined to play soccer
Justin Meram christened Justin Joseph Meram however his Iraqi passport states his name as Justin Hikmat Aziz (with his first name, father’s name and the name of his grandfather) was born on December 4, 1988 in Shelby Township, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit.
Justin was the youngest of Hikmat “Sam” Aziz Meram and Lamia Mansour Hormis’ four sons. His parents are Chaldean Catholics from Tal Kaif (Tel Keppe) in Mosul, who immigrated to the United States and met in the Detroit area, where an estimated 70,000 to 80,000 Chaldeans have made their home. His father came to the US in 1967 while his mother arrived eight years later.
Meram is following in the footsteps of a host of legendary Iraqi Christians footballers that have represented the Lions of Mesopotamia, from Youra Eshaya, Ammo Baba, Douglas Aziz to 1986 World Cup member Basil Gorgis, however with the present worrying scenes in the northern regions of Iraq, including in Mosul, where Meram’s family came from, his inclusion and appearance for Iraq will have a stronger more poignant message to the world and the Middle East.
But it all could’ve been very different for Justin, who in his school days had been a placekicker on the American Football team at Utica Eisenhower High School and after he was unable to gain a place to play college ‘soccer’, Meram quit the game for a while and was considering playing college football for Arizona State, where his family had moved. But he was spotted by a student playing football at a local park and asked if he was interested in playing at his college, Yavapi College. Meram had never heard of it but decided to enrol.
There Meram was a standout player in his two years at the community college, leading the Yavapai Roughriders to back-to-back NJCAA National Championships titles while earning a host of individual honours and accolades including two consecutive National Junior College Player of the Year awards, Meram set a school record for 132 points and finished second all-time in goals and assists with 51 goals and 30 assists in 52 matches!
He moved on to the University of Michigan, where he scored 24 goals in two seasons and on January 13, 2011, Meram was drafted as the No.15 pick in the first round of the MLS Superdraft in Baltimore to play for Columbus Crew. This season, Meram had his best ever season in the MLS, scoring 8 goals, 5 assists in 28 games, despite being sent off in his last game of the season for Crew.
From Mosul, to the Selby Township, Michigan, Arizona, Columbus and tomorrow Riyadh, Justin Meram has come a long way, and the Iraqi jumhour at the Gulf Cup are all waiting to be Meram-ers.