The Balkans, July 2000
“You are Yusuf, aren’t you?” I froze for a second but then quickly recovered. “No,” I smiled, “my name is Suleman.”
He was amongst a group of Bosnian refugees to whom I was introduced in Arizona a few years ago. I looked at his face carefully. I had never met him before.
But he persisted, “You once gave a Quran to my niece and signed your name as Yusuf.”
“Really?” I acted surprised. “What’s her name?” “Sonya Prohich,” he replied.
Upon hearing the name, my mind drifted back to Bashka Voda, a small Croatian village on the Adriatic Sea, and to some events that would remain with me for the rest of my life.
It was the spring of 1993, and the Balkan war was sending waves upon waves of refugees to the coastal villages, where tourist traffic had died down. The Croatian government had put up these refugees in tourist resorts, whose owners were being compensated by international relief agencies.
Bashka Voda was 25 miles from Krilo, a village where Abbas and I had our warehouse, from where we took supplies to the besieged Bosnian town of Mostar.
The war had opened the eyes of the refugees to their Islamic identity, sadly repressed through decades of Communism in Yugoslavia. They were eager to learn about Islam and relief workers like ourselves were struggling to do whatever we could.
Bosnian refugees, who lived around our warehouse, often came to us for assistance. On one such visit, a little girl approached me with a magazine picture showing a person making Salah. “Can you teach me this?” she said in broken English, pointing to the picture. “I love Allah, I love Islam but my father Communist, not teach me this.”
We set up a class, where these children learnt the Quran, Salah and the fundamentals of Islam.
Musallahs (places for prayer) were set up in the refugee camps run by Muslim relief agencies where arrangements were made to teach the Quran and Salah. On the other hand, camps run by Croatian authorities with sizeable number of Croat refugees were a challenge and Bashka Voda was one such example. Furthermore, the relationship between the Muslims and Croats was deteriorating due to the Croat-Muslim clashes in Central Bosnia, and all foreign Muslims were being looked upon suspiciously.
Upon discovering that no Muslims were working in Bashka Voda, Abbas and I decided to give it a shot. There were around a thousand or so refugees, half of them were Muslims and the rest – Croats from Bosnia.
On meeting with the Croat authorities, it became clear that establishing a Musallah was out of question. We decided to try something different.
We offered to supply food and detergents on a regular basis. They immediately agreed and the story was simple: there was no question of a shortage, as the UN was funding them. Having us bring in supplies meant that some of these administrators could pocket a share. For us it was a small price for direct access to the Muslims, who were at times discriminated against, and we could quietly help out, if needed.
After a few days, we told the administrators that we would like to offer English classes to the refugees. By being constructively engaged, we argued, the refugees will have fewer complaints and would relieve the pressure of the administrators. Also, we made it known that we would like to offer a course titled Historia Islama (the history of Islam). Both the Muslims and Croats can participate in the courses, and the participation would be completely voluntary.
With a few days of steady supplies behind them, our dear Croat friends were eager not to displease us.
The Muslims along with the Croat refugees were happy because learning English held many promises, such as working for international organizations desperately looking for interpreters.
We designed Historia Islama to be the Seerah of our Prophet (sa). Along the way, we would introduce the fundamentals of Islam, starting with Aqeedah and going on to the pillars of Islam and beyond. The course would run for three weeks.
Next, we found Aida, who used to teach English in Sarajevo. She readily agreed to teach the English class but Historia Islama was a different story. “I am a Muslim,” she protested, “but I don’t know much about Islam. How can I interpret something I don’t know?” We explained to her that we had no choice, and all she had to do was just listen and interpret. She finally agreed. We decided to compensate her with a modest salary.
Finally, the day for the first class arrived, and as we started driving towards Bashka Voda, I was fraught with conflicting thoughts. Alhumdulillah all had gone well so far, but we had felt very uneasy with some of the Croat administrators and refugees. Allah (swt) has bestowed intelligence on all nations, and some of them understood all too well the little game that was going on. We were, after all, foreigners, who had come to aid our Muslim brethren. While we gave food and sought to provide Islamic knowledge, there were others, who were fighting against the Serbs and the Croats in Bosnia. On the way to Bashka Voda, we had at least two Croat Army check-posts, where the soldiers never failed to convey their displeasure. Yes, we were relief workers and were covered by international law in Croatia, but a remote check-post could easily stir up trouble. Detention and imprisonment were not uncommon.
Reports of harassment of the Muslim refugees by the locals were getting common. The class would have been used as an excuse to foment a general backslash in Bashka Voda by saying that it was spreading Muslim extremism and fundamentalism, words that were common in the Croat media. Alija Izetbegovich, the President of Bosnia, was being referred to by those terms.
But on the other hand, it was also a golden opportunity, before which the refugees were either scattered in Western Europe or were moved to inaccessible locations. For many that was the only time to learn the basics of Islam in a structured manner.
We crossed the check-posts and Bashka Voda appeared in sight. As we took the exit to the resort, where the refugees were housed, I was seized by a disturbing thought: “What if the refugees sharing the same fears decide not to show up? What if we were forced to drop the class after all of these efforts?”
Aida met us at the door of the dining hall, where the class was to be held. It had big windows, which opened towards the sea. In peacetime, this would have been home to banquets and dinners for the tourists. As we walked in, we couldn’t believe our eyes: the hall was packed with over 70 people!
We said Salam and were met with ‘Waalaikum Assalam’ and then all fell silent. Abbas took a chair at the back, and I walked up to the front. The room was uncomfortably silent, as I felt all eyes on me. Here were two strangers, who had come from some far away land, looked different, spoke a different language but claimed a common interest based on a faith that they had been systematically kept away from.
I put down my book and said in my broken Bosnian: “Kako ste?” (“How are you?”) Suddenly, smiles erupted. I must have sounded funny. I introduced Abbas and myself and explained the purpose of the course.
We had children 6 years of age to boys and girls in their teens. There were some older people, including mothers of some of the children.
On our first meeting, Aida had extended her hand and we had explained that Muslim men were not allowed to shake hands with women unrelated to them. Aida had shared this with the refugees, so when little children swarmed around us, people ran to prevent girls as young as 4 years old from touching us. We had to clarify that small children didn’t fall in the rule. I also believe that Aida had told them to show respect for the teacher, as the younger children were very quiet and well-behaved.
The exception was a group of girls dressed in short skirts. The European definition of a short skirt is, well, very short. I was shocked, as this was an Islamic class. “These girls have purposefully decided to make fun of us,” I thought. Angry, I decided to ask them to leave but the thought of how the class would receive this gesture prevented me. My job was to gain their trust and help them learn what we had to offer.
Adapted (with permission) from “The Embattled Innocence.” Compiled for Hiba by Laila Brence.