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For Hirmez, Freedom Has a Special Ring : Gulf War: Baghdad native finds himself a reluctant spokesman on what life used to be like in Iraq--and on why he came the United States.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Waad Hirmez knows what it’s like to be part of a sideshow--he earns his living playing in the Major Soccer League.

Now Hirmez knows what it’s like to be a sideshow.

He is a native of Baghdad, Iraq, and since Saddam Hussein’s army overran neighboring Kuwait in early August, Hirmez has had to emcee a media circus.

Yet Hirmez, constantly approached by reporters, has yet to decline the opportunity that never presents itself in his native country--to express his opinions.

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People come to Hirmez wanting to know what it’s like being an Iraqi in the United States with both countries waging war.

The point he can’t seem to get across is that he, too, is American.

“If someone asks me my nationality,” Hirmez said. “I say I’m American. But if they push it and ask about my background, I tell them I’m from Iraq.”

Because he is in the public eye as one of the Sockers’ top goal scorers, Hirmez has found himself thrust behind a podium and made to answer questions about his homeland. He feels somewhat uncomfortable in that role. Iraq is simply a place he moved from 12 years ago when he was 17.

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“And Iraq has taken a different direction since I left the country,” he said.

Hirmez, 29, recalls growing up a Chaldean (Christian) in a country that is 95% Muslim. Although his family was among the minority, he never was made to feel different. That feeling would come only later, when he moved to the United States.

“I grew up with Muslim friends,” he said. “Most of my friends I played soccer with in the streets were Muslim.”

Hirmez even remembers a president who made appearances at religious gatherings and told the people they were Iraqis more than Muslims or Chaldeans. The President’s name was Saddam Hussein, and his message seemed to have an effect.

“Iraq was a very peaceful country when I was there,” Hirmez said. “You never had to worry about getting robbed. No one ever locked their doors. You could leave them open all night and not worry.”

But even in peacetime, Iraqi law required 100% military conscription for males upon the conclusion of their education. Not wanting to join Hussein’s army for three years, Hirmez’s older brother, Raad, in 1978 took his family’s advice and moved to the United States.

A year later Waad Hirmez and his father, Shakir, vacationed in California. Shakir was the only one to return home. Waad decided he wanted to stay with his brother.

“It was a big surprise when only my father came back,” said Neda Hirmez, Waad’s older sister. “He was doing so well in school. We all thought he would go to college (in Iraq).”

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Instead, Waad finished high school here, first enrolling at Granite Hills High, then transferring to Point Loma. He was drafted by the Sockers days after graduation.

Despite his star status on the soccer field (he was selected San Diego Section Player of the Year in 1981), Hirmez was an outsider elsewhere on campus.

“When I went to high school,” Hirmez said. “I got the feeling that people thought anyone not from this country is a foreigner. They would almost look down on you. You could sense a feeling that no one wanted to get too close to you in case their friends would see and say, ‘Oh, look who she’s talking to,’ or ‘Look who he’s hanging around with.’ I didn’t pay too much attention too it, but I could see it.”

Meanwhile, Hirmez’s brother had the misadventure of owning a liquor store here during the Iran hostage ordeal. Mistaken for an Iranian’s business, the store often was the target of eggs and stones.

Such a welcome. Still, Waad enjoyed his new life.

“There are good and bad things in every country,” Hirmez said. “And I’ve seen more good things in this country.”

Hirmez’s first positive impression of this country was its abundance of goods and their affordability.

“In Baghdad,” he said, “there’s always a shortage of something: eggs, beef, produce. There’s always something not available--whether you can afford it or not.”

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Perhaps in shortest supply in Baghdad were individual opinions.

“There, everybody has to feel the same way,” Hirmez said. “When I got here it was like a shock to me. I didn’t know you could say whatever you want. I remember when I first came here I was looking through a magazine and I saw a picture of the president of the United States, but it was a (derogatory caricature). I thought, ‘God, do these people know what they are doing? Are they sure they want to take such a chance?’ I showed it to my brother and he said, ‘Yeah, you can say anything you want here. That’s OK.’

“In Iraq, you would be taken away for that.”

Here, Hirmez seems to be taken away with his First Amendment rights. At least he knows how to exercise them:

--He went to the press to criticize Sockers ownership this past summer during contract negotiations.

--Earlier this month he wasn’t afraid to offer his opinion to reporters that Branko Segota, the Sockers’ all-time leading scorer who went AWOL over the New Year’s holiday, should be kept out of the lineup.

--During breaks in the action, he sometimes waves his arms in a mock fit and screams at the fans to make some noise.

Hirmez, however, has learned that speaking freely is not always appreciated. He insists he has never performed in an All-Star game because opposing players, who do the voting, resent the way he plays up to crowds (Hirmez sometimes riles opponents when he “walks the glass” and exchanges high fives with fans after scoring goals).

After a recent home victory over the Tacoma Stars in which he scored twice, Hirmez was accused by a Tacoma player of “rubbing it in.” The discussion became heated as the two nearly exchanged blows in the Arena bar. It was only the most recent in a string of such run-ins.

Still, Hirmez is not afraid to speak his mind, even on a topic as volatile as the Persian Gulf War.

“The sad part about this war,” Hirmez said, “is it’s a no-win situation. Iraq can’t win. The United States can’t win. Kuwait is the only country that can get something out of it.

“I respect President Bush, but I wouldn’t fight in this war. All I would be doing would be defending Kuwait, and why should I?”

Hirmez has watched TV since the war erupted and has seen emotional supporters of the war angrily chastise those who disagree. He knows anti-war comments such as the above could cause his family to become the target of rage. He knows he could come under attack just as his brother’s store did a decade ago.

But he is not about to let someone else dictate his thoughts. He has already lived in a country where citizens are under such constraints.

“Pro-war, anti-war . . . the great thing about this country is not everybody has to feel the same way,” Hirmez said. “You can express your feelings. Why do you think I moved here?”

There are many feelings this war has brought upon Hirmez.

Although his immediate family--his mother, three brothers and two sisters--now live in San Diego, he still has several relatives and friends in Iraq. He wonders if they are entrenched somewhere in Kuwait, or whether he will see them again.

His family still owns three houses in Baghdad. Hirmez wonders if they will survive the bombing.

Hirmez’s father died two years ago at the age of 61. He had not seen his son in six years. Now the son wonders if he ever will see his father’s grave.

In fact, Hirmez missed getting the answers to his questions by only a matter of days.

He had made plans to take his mother to their homeland this past summer. Three weeks before they were to depart, Iraqi soldiers poured into Kuwait.

“We couldn’t go after that,” Hirmez said. “It would have been too dangerous. I didn’t want to take a chance.”

He and his mother would have been carrying U.S. passports. Saddam Hussein at that time found Americans to make excellent hostages. And besides, the Iraqi army could have used a few good men.

Waad’s sister Neda did manage to sneak into Iraq during its war with Iran and visit her father three years ago.

“He always told us he didn’t want anyone to come back, that it was too dangerous,” Neda said.

She went anyway.

“I was there 24 days,” Neda remembered. “And they bombed Baghdad five times. Once they bombed a school with children and kids died. I saw what happened. There were many war scars. And in every house there is at least one missing. They lost many people.”

Waad heard similar stories from his father.

“He used to tell me that he would stand on the balcony and watch missiles hit all over the city,” Hirmez said. “He said it was like watching a war movie, except some bombs would hit schools and kill kids. It’s so terrible to think about.”

Shakir was not allowed to emigrate because of the Iranian war. He was the only member of the family still in Iraq when fightingbroke out in September, 1980.

Shakir never saw his son play professionally. The rest of the family doesn’t miss a game.

“He made it in this country with so much competition,” Neda said. “He needed a lot of discipline to do it, especially coming from a Third World country. We are very proud of him.”

Having found some Americans to be cold upon his arrival in California, Hirmez now sees another side as friends and fans alike try to soften the war’s emotional blow.

“I get phone calls every day,” Hirmez said. “More and more people call to say they are praying for me and for my family. It’s a great feeling.”

But the phone calls only force Hirmez to dwell on his birthplace all the more often.

“If you’re born in another country you never lose that,” Hirmez said. “I’ll defend my country, the United States, but I’ll never forget Baghdad.

“People ask me all the time what Baghdad was like. If I were to put it out of my mind, what would I tell them?”

His memory of Baghdad might have to suffice for a lifetime.

“I just wanted to see Baghdad one more time,” he said of his aborted trip. “It has been nine years now and with the way things are going, with the bombing and everything, I may not ever be able to see my father’s grave.

“That’s the worst feeling.”


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