In parts 1 and 2: By supplying a Bosnian refugee camp in Bashka Voda with food and detergents, relief workers Suleman and Abbas (with the help of Aida, their translator) obtained permission to teach the refugees English and Islamic history, thus introducing to them the basics of Islam, their faith, which had been suppressed by the Communist regime. Suleman found that, although Muslims by birth, the refugees knew nothing about Islam. The turnout to the classes exceeded their expectations and the courses were a great success. They witnessed countless heartfelt Shahadahs.
I had come to be known in the camp as Yusuf.
For the little ones, I was not only a teacher but also an elder brother, who knew other things as well. “Yusuf,” they would often ask, “Kad Varatish?” (“When will we return [to our homes]?”)
I would wince in pain, as many of them were not told that their villages had been reduced to ashes. Looking into their eyes, I would manage a smile, while my heart broke into a million pieces. “Uskuro, Ako Bogda.” (“Soon, if God wills.”)
“Yusuf,” they would continue, “we will go home once the war ends but where will you go?” “I’ll go to some other place, where Muslims need help,” I would reply. “We wish you can stay with us,” they would say. One of them had a solution: “There is a piece of land next to my house. Why don’t you come with us and build a house there after the war? You can get married and then you can go anywhere you like.”
It was one of the last days that an unforgettable event occurred. As I started the class, I noticed that the students were uncharacteristically quiet.
“Why are you so quiet today?” I asked.
Aida told me that there was nothing special and requested me to continue.
I put down the chalk. “I won’t continue, until you tell me what’s going on.”
They had received a notice from the Croat authorities that they would be moved to Karlovac in just a few days. I was shocked!
Karlovac was a Croatian town near the Serb frontlines. It was not safe from the Serb artillery and had limited access to relief supplies. Croats wanted to move Croat refugees to the safety of the coastal areas and had also started a dirty business of exchanging Bosnian civilian men detained in Croatia with the Croat prisoners held by the Serbs. Rumours were flying that something similar could happen to the refugees being moved to Karlovac.
A woman said: “Yusuf, we have lost everything in this war. Our men have been killed and our homes destroyed. We have no future. Now we are being moved to Karlovac with these little children and these young girls. How will we take care of them? Yusuf, we have no hope.” She broke into sobs.
It was as if the rest were waiting for this moment. Soon all had broken down including Aida. Seeing the elders cry, the children also joined in. As I stood speechless between them, I felt helpless, utterly helpless. I walked towards one child and started patting his head but to no avail.
I felt rage rising within me. I was angry at the Croats and the Serbs for this terrible war, at the world that stood by, and at the Muslim countries whose armies quietly watched, while the whole nation was being slaughtered, mutilated, raped…
“Listen to me!” I shouted, my voice a mix of rage and sorrow.
All looked up, surprised.
“Let me tell you something today,” I was shouting, as if my voice could drown all the sorrow. I got everyone’s attention.
“You know that you are the most unfortunate people on earth today for you have nothing; nothing at all. You have lost your homes, your towns, your villages, and your loved ones.”
All were nodding.
“And you don’t know, if you have any future or if you would ever be able to go back to Bosnia.” “And,” I continued, “the people in America have everything that you can imagine. Peace, home, cars, wealth, food… They have everything that you don’t have and everything that you have lost. Everything!”
“But do you know,” I lowered my voice to barely an audible whisper, “that a day will come, when many in America would wish and wish hard that they were Bosnians like you!”
I saw eyes widen in wonder, disbelief, and shock.
There was a silence for a few moments, before one said in a hurt tone: “Yusuf, are you joking with us today?”
“No,” I replied, “I am serious.”
“Are you all not Muslims?” I asked. They were away from the practice of Islam, but they were Muslims all right. I had their testaments in writing.
“When a calamity befalls a Muslim,” I continued, “Allah (swt) forgives his or her sins in compensation. You have suffered so much that I believe that your sins would have been forgiven by the Day of Judgement and you will, Insha’Allah, enter Paradise. And at that time, many Americans will wish that they were Bosnians like you.”
I paused. My words were sinking in, as looks of bewilderment started changing into ones of understanding.
“I would like to ask you a question today,” my voice was again rising, “who amongst you would like to be an American and who would like to choose to be a Bosnian as you are?”
The response took me by complete surprise. Everyone raised their hands instantly, some even rising from their chairs. “Yusuf,” they shouted in almost unison, “we are happy as we are! We choose to be Bosnians! We shall not complain!” Their tear-streaked faces had lit up with smiles.
We continued the class that day, as if nothing had happened.
That day they truly won my heart. While many still question why I risked my life for people, who were so far away from Islam, I am and shall remain ever proud to have stood up for them.
Soon, the course was over. Most of them did well in their tests and we distributed presents on the last day. I finally bid farewell to them with a promise to keep in touch, little knowing that I would not be seeing them again.
Within a week of this farewell, Abbas and I were detained by the HVO (The Bosnian Croatian Militia) and sent to a concentration camp. On our release, we found that the refugees had been sent to an undisclosed location.
As I said goodbye to Bosnia and headed home, I brought with me memories of a small town in a landscape of tragedy: Bashka Voda.
And, yes, amongst the presents given out was a translation of the Quran for a little girl named Sanya Prohich. On the first page was scribbled:
“May Allah (swt) make you a pride for this Ummah. (Ameen.)
June 21, 1993”