Leitrim hurler Zak Moradi talks about growing up in a dictatorship, experiencing Croke Park glory and standing up for what he believes in.
The first game of hurling I ever saw was the 2003 All-Ireland Final between Cork and Kilkenny. I remember seeing Setanta and Seán Óg Ó hAilpín playing for Cork and thinking, “Hang on, these two lads don’t look like the rest of them.”
”It made me realise at an early age that even if I am the only ‘tanned lad’ on the team that there is still a place for me.
I’m Kurdish-Iranian. In 1980, my parents fled their homeland in Iran to Ramadi in central Iraq once the Iran-Iraq war kicked off. You could be thrown in prison for up to 10 years for trying to sneak into Iraq, people have been shot for less. My family were lucky to get out when they did.
I was born in Iraq in 1991 during The Gulf War. That was an incredibly tough time for my family. My mother says it was like living a nightmare for a whole year; bombs exploding, and planes flying overhead were regular occurrences. You never knew what was going to land from the sky. Once it was a plane that crash-landed a few hundred yards away from our home and exploded in a fireball.
After 9/11, we had no choice but to get out of Iraq as tensions between Iraq and America had heightened. My brother, who was working for the UN, managed to arrange safe passage out of the country and we relocated to Ireland. I knew nothing about the country or even where to find it on a map. So, in 2002 we arrived at our new home in Leitrim. America invaded Iraq the following year.
In our culture, it’s normal for a married couple to have seven or eight children. There were 11 children in our family.
When they hear I have eight brothers, Irish people often say, “You could nearly play a game of 5-a-side between you”. Truth is, we didn’t really play ball sports growing up. There was one football between about 50 kids in the area, we always ended up fighting over it. We were happy enough to do sprint races against each other up and down the street.
Where I lived in Iraq, you couldn’t class one family as being better off than another. There wasn’t rich, and there wasn’t poor. We were a close community that helped each other out, we all got by.
My mam has sisters in Sweden and Denmark who sought refuge in the 1980s. They used to send us around a hundred euro to help us get by when we were short on money. It wouldn’t have put them majorly out of pocket, it was probably a day’s wages to them, but that would last us for over a month. Mam could have bought anything she wanted with that money, but she made it last for the sake of the family.
The schooling we had seemed normal to us at the time, but when I think back on it, it was a bit mad.
There was a massive picture of Saddam Hussein in every classroom, you couldn’t go two minutes in a day without seeing his face. All the kids in school talked about him as if he was a god. If you open any schoolbook, there was a picture of him on the front or the back. You couldn’t escape him; he had the whole country under his influence.
If you turned on the radio or the television, everything you saw was about Saddam Hussein. The country was rife with propaganda, similar to what you see in North Korea now.
I remember watching a football match in which Iraq lost to Saudi Arabia 3-0. The media reported that Iraq had won the game. None of the matches were ever live, it was always edited highlights that we got to see.
”As long as I can remember Iraq never lost a game of football, they must have been some team!
When we were living in Iraq, war was at the centre of everything. Moving to Leitrim saved us from that.
The first thing I remember about Ireland was how green everything was. In Iraq, there were oil fields everywhere, so you could always smell diesel and smoke. We were so used to it that when we got to Ireland, we couldn’t believe how clean the air was.
The GAA played a big part in helping us integrate into Irish society. Leitrim hurler, Clement Cunniffe first introduced me to GAA when he was going around primary schools teaching hurling. I can still picture him now with his full head of hair, not quite how he looks now!
My English improved dramatically through hurling. I was hearing the same phrases over and over and could recognise what they meant. It was everything from “Run” and “Pass” to “Do you want a lift home after?”.
The first time my parents came to see me play a game of Gaelic football they brought a video camera. I was delighted they were showing an interest, but at the same time I was thinking, “Ah here, what are they at?” My dad would say, “In 20 years’ time you’ll look back at this”. He was right. I watched it back about 10 years ago and had a good laugh. I was just running around kicking the ball like soccer, I didn’t have a clue about the rules at all.
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The family moved to Dublin when I was 15 so by time senior hurling came about, I was playing with Thomas Davis in Tallaght but still eligible to play inter-county with Leitrim.
It was the Dubs that gave me my new name. They couldn’t pronounce ‘Semaco’ or didn’t make much effort to anyway, so they nicknamed me ‘Zak’. It has stuck ever since – even my family call me Zak.
My dad used to love hurling. He would say, “That’s a real man’s game”.
He managed to get to most of my games and would always encourage from the sideline, but at one game in particular, he got a bit too involved.
It was one of my first senior hurling games, and there was a rowdy bulk of a man marking me. There was a bit of pushing and shoving, and he got me in a headlock. I didn’t know what to do, I was panicking thinking, “Do I hit him or what?”
The referee was watching the ball, so he didn’t see what was happening. My dad was shouting for him to get off me, and he wouldn’t.
”Next thing I knew, my dad comes running on the pitch swinging a hurl at your man.
The benches cleared and all hell broke loose. There could only have been five minutes left, but the game ended up being abandoned.
The coaches told me to explain to my dad that he couldn’t get involved like that again. It was an instinctive reaction from my dad, he just wanted to protect his son.
He was a hardworking man. In Iraq, he used to drive trucks for 16 hours a day. Sometimes we wouldn’t see him for up to four days at a time. He was being worked to the bone and barely got paid a penny.
He and 150 other workers staged a walkout because of the poor conditions and were all thrown in prison for it. My mother had to get money from family in Sweden to pay for his release. The thing about living in a dictatorship is that money talks. If you have money, you’ll get by just fine.
My parents always planned on moving back to Iran once the youngest had turned 18. Iran was home to them, but for me and my younger siblings, Ireland was our home. They didn’t want to take that away from us.
Dad passed away after a heart attack in 2013, so they never got to live out their plan.
Eight years after arriving in Ireland, I was selected to play hurling for Leitrim, lining out with my mentor, Clement Cunniffe. We went on to win the Lory Meagher Cup together last Summer. That was a surreal moment. Winning in Croke Park, battling alongside the man who had introduced me to this fantastic sport.
As amazing as that moment was, it was very tough not having Dad in the stands when we won the Lory Meagher.
”Dad would have loved to have seen me play in Croke Park, it would have meant the world to him.
I had 24 of my family at the match that day, and a brother in Sweden streaming the match online, so it was an incredible day by all accounts.
Thomas Davis GAA lost a great clubman recently named Andrew O’Donnell. He was involved with the club for 60 years and won three Dublin Senior Football Championships in a row. He used to always say, “It doesn’t matter what championship you’re playing in, it’s still 15 against 15, and the beauty of this game is that the team that wins the Junior B Championship celebrates just as much as the team that wins the All-Ireland.”
”It wasn’t the Liam MacCarthy Cup we won back in June, we know that ourselves, but it was our All-Ireland.
I’ve been giving talks around schools that are attended by a lot of foreign nationals. I always tell them my story and encourage them to get involved in GAA, in and out of school, just like Clement would have done for me. It has potential to change their lives for the better.
It has helped me more than I can express. Hurling gives me a massive sense of belonging and makes me feel that bit more Irish.
I applied for my Irish citizenship there this year.
I don’t have a Kurdish-Iranian passport, so Iranians might say I’m not from there. I haven’t yet gotten an Irish passport, so people say I’m not from here either. In terms of nationality, I’m in no-man’s land right now but hoping to sort that out soon.
”A passport makes you feel that you bit more connected to the country you call home and no doubt about it, Ireland is home.
I went back to Iran in 2015. As a 25-year-old it was very strange meeting large parts of my family for the first time. There were uncles I had never met who looked exactly like my dad. There were cousins my age I had never met before, it was all very bizarre.
I was going to make a return trip recently, but, circumstances forced me to change my plans.
I did an interview with The Times UK, where I talked about how the Turkish are carrying out an ethnic cleansing of the Kurdish people in Turkey and Syria. The Turkish ambassador replied to the newspaper denying there is any wrongdoing. Based on the reaction of the Turkish authorities to the article, I was advised that there would be a high likelihood that I would be arrested if I tried to enter the country. As my route to Iran would take me through Turkey, my trip was no longer an option.
I don’t regret speaking out. I hate seeing wars. My family have suffered through them, millions around the world have suffered through them. If people don’t speak out, people will continue to needlessly suffer.
The Kurds in Turkey still don’t have the same rights at the rest of the population. You can be put in prison just for speaking Kurdish. Turkey appear to have a plan to take the Kurdish area, and push the people out of their homes, and push them into Iraq.
If that happened anywhere in the EU, there would be uproar. Since Turkey are looking to become an EU member state, they would want to take a long look at their approach to human rights.
There are 20 million Kurds living in Turkey who feel the effects of oppression. There are 200 journalists in Turkey currently imprisoned for speaking against that oppression and many more people who have a voice that are afraid to speak up.
I’m not a political person, I just know Kurdish history, and I can’t stand to see my own people being mistreated. They should be entitled to the same sense of belonging that I have, wherever they are.
If something isn’t right, I’ll always be the one to stand up and say it. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, life is too short not to.