Detained Iraqis’ plight trips up Detroit area soccer star

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By Larry O’Connor, The Detroit News(Photo: Robin Buckson, The Detroit News)
Justin Meram, the Chaldean-American professional soccer player, on Thursday performed the most patriotic act perhaps next to singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” dressed as Uncle Sam.
He threw out the first pitch at a Detroit Tigers game.

Of course, the 28-year-old Shelby Township native, who plays for Major League Soccer’s Columbus Crew, bounced the baseball adroitly off his instep before delivering a strike to Mikie Mahtook.

Against the backdrop of the ceremonial rite of America’s pastime, the son of Iraqi immigrants is distressed by events unfolding in his community. Last month, federal agents arrested more than 100 Iraqi Christians targeted for deportation in Metro Detroit alone as part of a nationwide sweep.

A Detroit federal judge this week extended a two-week stay on deporting Iraqi nationals with criminal convictions who are deemed as being here illegally. If sent back to their homeland, they’ll likely face religious persecution, analysts say.

“Being a Chaldean American, being an Iraqi American, it is tough to see,” said Meram, who doesn’t have any relatives or know anyone affected by the deportation order. “We hope obviously things will change because you feel for these families. I am Chaldean and I know what a great community we have here in Michigan.

“You never want to see fellow Chaldeans go back to Iraq, especially after living here for so many years. You pray for them and you hope things will turn around.”

Meram’s Chaldean-Iraqi roots run deep.

As the Michigan product made a name for himself in MLS, he had a choice whether to play internationally with the U.S. or war-ravaged Iraq. He chose the latter.

He’s made more than 20 appearances for Iraq since 2014. He scored his first international goal against Chinese Taipei in World Cup qualifying in 2015. He’s also appeared for the Middle Eastern side in Asian Cup and Gulf Cup of Nation competitions.

“It means so much. Being born here to Iraqi parents, the culture has always been with me,” said Meram, who played youth soccer for Vardar, was First Team All-State at Utica Eisenhower and played for the University of Michigan. “When you become a pro, that’s a step, but playing internationally, in World Cup qualifiers, that’s one of the highest steps of being a pro.

“When that opportunity came for me it was unbelievable.”

Iraq’s national team has come a long way from the horrors of the Saddam Hussein regime in 1990s when players were tortured for poor performances. The team’s biggest achievement of late was winning the 2007 Asian Cup.

Due to ongoing violence in the region, though, the Lions of Mesopotamia are still playing World Cup qualifiers at neutral sites, including Tehran.

In March, reports surfaced that Meram declined an invitation to play for Iraq for fear he wouldn’t be able to re-enter the country due to the controversial U.S. travel ban. But that was not the case at all, he said.

“It was just the timing of my career and all of that,” he said. “It was the right time to stay back. It was a good thing, because I’m playing well for Columbus. So it worked out well and everyone understood.”

Around the same time, Meram, who was selected by the Crew 15th overall in the 2011 MLS Super Draft, signed a multi-year extension with Columbus. He’s tallied eight goals and six assists in 19 appearances this season, mostly playing at left midfielder.

His game has steadily improved over six years, which included being named team MVP last season when he collected five goals and 13 assists.

“When we first got here, he was a player with a lot of individual talent and over the course of the last three years he’s become a team player,” said Crew coach Gregg Berhalter at Meram’s contract signing in March. “He’s evolved his game on the offensive end and on the defensive side, and looking at that is something we wanted to keep with the team.”

Meram always had a nose for the net. He bagged eight goals in 2014 and six in 2015 when the Crew made it to the MLS Cup Final, losing to Portland.

He earned JUCO Player of the Year honors in 2008 while helping lead undefeated Yavapai College in Arizona (26-0) to a national title. His 51 career goals ranks second in school history.

When he transferred to Michigan, his prolific ways followed. He finished with 24 goals and 62 points in two seasons with the Wolverines. He also kicked a ball of a different shape while in Ann Arbor.

A wry smile comes to his face recounting his experience at The Big House. He suited up as a kicker for the UM football team’s 2010 home opener against Connecticut. He eventually gave up football because it conflicted with soccer, he said.

“I ran out of the tunnel, hitting the banner. I got my winged helmet. Number 38. Meram on the back, so definitely an amazing moment in my life,” he said. “I’ll never forget it.”

Meram’s family is relishing Justin’s career, as well.

At Comerica Park behind home plate Thursday, Irvin Meram beamed with pride as his younger brother exited the field having performed baseball’s opening ritual. He was joined by a crew of family members, including his father Hikmat and mother Lamia. His father came to the U.S. in 1967 and his mother in 1975.

Justin has become a source of pride for Iraqi Americans, his brother said. The observation is validated earlier when a teenage boy passing by in the stands shouts to the Crew player, “Hey, I’m Chaldean!”

“Anywhere he goes, they all look up to him,” Irvin said. “They are all excited to see him. They all want autographs. It’s crazy to see that at all the other stadiums that he plays at in MLS. People have Iraqi fans who come there just to support him and wait until after the game to meet him.

“It’s really cool to see that he is recognized.”

Twitter: @larryo1961