From Iraq to Croker joy: Refugee turned hurler Zak wins All-Ireland title
From Iraq to Carrick-on-Shannon to Croke Park, Zak Moradi completed the most unlikely of journeys at the weekend as the Kurdish-Iranian refugee won an All-Ireland medal with the Leitrim hurlers.
The 28-year-old came off the bench just over an hour into the final of the Lory Meagher Cup against Lancashire - the fifth tier of the hurling championship - and scored a pivotal point in extra-time to help his county to an unprecedented title.
"It made it extra special," says Moradi.
"The game needed that point so I came in at the right time. It was unreal, and it still hasn't sunk in," he admitted.
Moradi's parents are from the mountainous region of Iran alongside the border with Iraq. When the Iraq-Iran war broke out in 1980 his family fled to Ramadi in central Iraq, where he was born in 1991.
But following the September 11 attacks in 2001 tensions began to rise in their adopted country, with the family fleeing to Ireland in 2002, a year before the US invaded Iraq.
Moradi was 11 when he arrived in Carrick-on-Shannon and he was first introduced to hurling a year later by long-time Leitrim stalwart Clement Cunniffe, who he played alongside in Saturday's final.
"I couldn't hit a ball until I was bleedin' 15," says Moradi with an accent that was honed in Tallaght, where he has lived for several years. "At 14 my striking got a little better but I had a hurl in my hand every day until I was 18. As a young fella I'd see matches on telly and think: 'I'd love to play in Croke Park one day'."
That dream was realised in 2017, but Leitrim lost the Lory Meagher Cup final by six points to Warwickshire. "Two years ago the boys couldn't believe we were walking out at Croke Park, we were happy to just be in the final, but this time was different," he says.
"We went out to win. All the other counties look down at us and we know that, but it was 36 lads in that panel who have the same heart as Kilkenny."
Moradi works for a pharmaceutical company in Tallaght, but every Tuesday and Thursday he makes the two-and-a-half-hour drive back home for training with Leitrim, while he plays club hurling in the capital for Thomas Davis.
"I leave my house at 4pm and have to collect other lads to bring to training, so I don't get home until 12.30am," he says. "But we make the effort week in, week out."
Heading into Saturday's final, the Leitrim players felt many had written them off.
"The lads were p****d off because people were saying we'd get beaten by 15 points because [Lancashire] had players from all over the country," says Moradi, whose family made the trip to lend their support.
"Half of them haven't a clue what way the game is played but sure, they were there," he says with a laugh.
Growing up in Iraq, Moradi's first love was soccer. "There wasn't much sport around at the time, it was a dictatorship country and we couldn't even afford a football."
While he tried various sports in Leitrim, the community spirit of Gaelic games appealed most and he is proud to represent the sport's rich and growing diversity. "Sport brings everyone together. The GAA is like a family," he said.