SOCCER: Finding peace on a different battlefield

Izudin Hodzic makes a run while officiating a game at the ISU Soccer Complex. Hodzic fled Serbia in 1994 to escape the war. Couresty Photo

Izudin Hodzic makes a run while officiating a game at the ISU Soccer Complex. Hodzic fled Serbia in 1994 to escape the war. Couresty Photo

David Merrill

Izudin Hodzic stepped off an airplane with his wife and infant child in tow, not knowing a word of English and with only $50 to his name.

He had just come from a country where he could only bring with him what he could carry, trying to find the next building to duck into to avoid getting hit by flying bullets or debris.

By the fall of 1994, this frightening vision had become enough of a reality for Hodzic, an NCAA soccer official, and his family. That’s when they came to the United States from Serbia as refugees.

Hodzic now lives in Johnston with his wife Adela and their two daughters, 9-year-old Alna and 16-year-old Adela. Both have followed in their father’s footsteps and taken up soccer. Adela played with the Johnston High School varsity team before switching to play with the Johnston-Urbandale select team.

Before they came to the U.S., the family tried to escape the escalating war with the Serbians in the fight for Yugoslavia’s independence.

“I got off the plane and I didn’t know where to go or what to do or what to say to anybody, I didn’t know a lick of English,” Hodzic said.

According to The Center for Balkan Development, the fall of communism in the 1980s laid the groundwork for the conflict that began in 1992. Slobodan Milosevic rose up as the undisputed leader of the Serbian nation and pushed hard for Serbian nationalism. Religious conflicts also fueled the violence.

“The three main groups that participated in the conflict were the Serbs, who are Christian Orthodox; the Croats, who were Catholic; and the Bosnian Muslims,” said Anca Turcu, lecturer in political science.

Hodzic and his family arrived in Des Moines on April 19, 1994, and were greeted by Kay and Chris Arnold, their host family, with whom they remain close to this day. The Arnolds became involved when they saw images of the conflict over the news. Though Hodzic doesn’t remember it, the Arnold family took them for pizza upon the Hodzics’ arrival in Des Moines.

“We saw these pictures and video footage and they showed people fleeing from the enemy Serbs,” Kay Arnold said. “They were carrying everything they had with them. That’s when me and Chris decided to get involved with the Iowa Bureau of Refugee Services.”

Des Moines is one of 12 cities that take part in the Bureau of Refugee Services.

While Hodzic and his family were able to gain refugee status and come to Des Moines with their safety, some of his relatives weren’t so lucky. Hodzic had three brothers fight for Serbian freedom; one was killed in battle.

“He disappeared,” Hodzic said. “For years we hoped that he was just captured at one of the many camps, but they eventually found his body. He went missing while I was getting ready to go to Bosnia and fight. My mother forbid me from going. Her and my wife were dependent on me to pay the rent in Croatia.”

War forced him out of his homeland and took the life of his brother, but what the war could not do was take away the sport that meant the most to him: soccer. As there were no school leagues at the time, Hodzic played in various recreational leagues while holding down a job as a bus driver and later a cabinet maker. When he was 18, he also served a year in the Yugoslavian army as a reserve. All 18-year-old males were required to serve at least one year.

Once he got settled in the U.S., he continued to play for a short time before concentrating on officiating. The first Bosnian soccer club was formed in 1995, and it wasn’t long before Hodzic and his teammates found success.

“I breathe soccer,” Hodzic said. “In the summer of 1999, my team won first place in the Blaine, Minn., Memorial tournament. After that I mostly played in the Iowa Summer and Winter games and began coaching my daughter’s team. Due to my age, I stopped playing, but I still want soccer to be a big part of my life.”

Soccer is something Bosnia as a whole has adopted as its main sport. Hodzic compares it to football in the United States and says soccer is played similarly to that of the style play in South American countries.

While Hodzic’s main job is designing cabinets at a West Des Moines woodshop, his side job and hobby of reffing soccer provides a whole new set of challenges.

“The toughest part is dealing with the coaches,” Hodzic said. “Everybody thinks they know all the soccer rules. Also, the audience doesn’t understand that I don’t favor either team. I just lead the game and make the calls as best I see and know that [at any] given second. I keep up with all the new rules of soccer so I’m well prepared. I take pride in what I do as an official.”

Hodzic has worn many different uniforms over the years, but on fall weekends he puts on the uniform and the face of an entire community to be around a sport that has held his family and his friends together.

“You can say I found peace through soccer,” Hodzic said. “It has been my way of destressing and getting my mind off of all the sadness. It took us many years to settle here. Soccer became so important, not just for players, but the entire Bosnian community here. We all gathered for games every weekend — kids, wives and all. It was pretty much the only social event where we all came together and had fun.”

When Hodzic steps on the field armed with only a whistle, he knows nothing can bring him down, nothing can touch him. He feels at home.