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'Bosniaks' bring piece of home to Boise in newly opened mosque

While controversy has raged elsewhere surrounding Islam, a new mosque has opened quietly in Idaho.

BY BETHANN STEWART 
Idaho Statesman
October 05, 2010

Bosnian Islamic Center
Samed Ceric, right, joins others for prayer at the Bosnian Islamic Center on Cloverdale Road in South Boise Monday Sept. 27, 2010. The close-knit community has remodeled an existing building this year to create a much awaited Bosnian mosque in the Treasure Valley. The mosque was dedicated July 4. Photo: Darin Oswald / Idaho Statesman

Vacant and neglected for four years, a former church building on the corner of Cloverdale and Lake Hazel roads in Southwest Boise now glows bright white and green from new paint.

The Islamic arches along the porch are about as common here as the rolling thunder of the Bosnian language. Today both are a part of the West Boise neighborhood.

The new home of the Islamic Community of Bosniaks - a term that means Bosnian Muslim - was dedicated this summer, around the same time a proposed Islamic Center two blocks from the World Trade Center site turned into a national debate about religious freedom, private property rights and the proper way to honor the dead.

For the 260 families in the Boise Bosniak community, the mosque represents a small piece of home - a home many can never return to.

"It's mostly Bosnian, but everyone is welcome," said secretary Denis Miljkovic. "Whoever brings a good heart, a good attitude."

GOOD NEIGHBORS

Despite the controversies seen elsewhere, the new mosque's mostly Christian neighbors have been more welcoming.

Southwest Ada County Alliance spokeswoman Betty Bermensolo said she hasn't heard any negative comments about the Bosnian Islamic Center.

"There's a fear of the unknown that's always going to be there, unless people go in and give (the Bosnians) a chance to enlighten them," Bermensolo said. "They're trying to practice their religion and be safe in this country. That's what we're all about."

In September, when a Florida pastor threatened to burn the Quran on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, a woman stopped by the Bosnian mosque to bring its members a copy of the Muslim holy book.

She said she didn't like what the pastor was doing, and she wanted them to know that not all Americans are the same, said Samed Ceric, the Bosnian mosque's former president.

Still, not everyone has been so receptive.

While there have been no overt threats of violence, people driving by and waiting at the light have yelled obscenities and given them the finger, Ceric said.

They've installed security cameras around the mosque, which are on all the time.

MUSLIMS IN BOISE

The first Islamic community in Boise came together in 1982 with 15 to 20 people, according to the Pluralism Project at Harvard University. In 1989, they moved their worship out of individual homes and into the first of several rented spaces. It wasn't until 2002 that the community bought a building at 27th Street and Stewart Avenue.

The growing number of refugees and computer software companies in Boise helped the Islamic community grow, according to Harvard's research.

After the 9/11 attacks, the congregation that met for Friday prayers worried there would be an attack on the center, said Abdul Yoonas, a Muslim who has lived in Boise for nearly 31 years.

Instead, interfaith groups arrived and formed a human chain around the mosque while they prayed inside.

"That was a heartwarming experience that those in the community appreciated," Yoonas said.

From time to time, the 27th Street mosque will get hate messages on the answering machine, but the neighbors have been very outgoing and accommodating, he said.

There also are a lot of churches in the neighborhood, and no one seems to have any problems, said Erin Sorensen, who lives in the neighborhood.

"The mosque serves as a community center and an essential meeting place for our residents who come from all around the world," she said.

THE BOSNIAN MOSQUE

In August 2009, about 40 families got together to form the first Bosnian Islamic Center. They rented a house on Ustick Road for the first six months, Miljkovic said.

About five months ago, they bought the 10,000-square-foot building on the corner of Cloverdale and Lake Hazel roads for about $500,000.

"We prayed at the mosque on 27th Street. The Quran is the same everywhere, but the culture is different," Ceric said. "Some people like to say their prayers in Bosnian."

For the privilege of being the first one to put the key in the door of the new mosque, one man paid $26,000 in cash.

Because the building used to be a church, it's already zoned for use as a place of worship, Ceric said.

Most Bosnian Muslims were placed in Boise as refugees 10 to 15 years ago. Since then, the community has spread throughout the Treasure Valley, where the cost of living is more affordable than the Downtown Boise area, Miljkovic said.

The mosque is a gathering place for this scattered community.

"This was the only building available that fit our needs," Miljkovic said.

FIGHTING THE STEREOTYPES

The 4,000 Bosniaks in the Treasure Valley find themselves on the front lines of a culture war against American stereotypes of Muslims.

Most of them go about their daily lives like everyone else, and no one realizes they are Muslims, Ceric said.

People act out against Islam because they don't understand the religion, and they don't know who Muslims are, Miljkovic said.

Yoonas doesn't blame people for getting the wrong idea when all they see in the news are negative portrayals of Islam.

"You just have to open the newspaper and see letters written by people who have misinformation," he said. "When people know more about Islam, the negative perception goes away."

While Yoonas said he has not been personally harassed, he acknowledged that it's easier for him as a man to fit into Boise society, as opposed to women, such as his wife, who wear a hijab, or head covering.

And he cautioned that his experience isn't universal because the Muslim community in Boise is very diverse.

Living with the legacy of the 9/11 attacks has not been easy, said Ceric, noting that Muslims who worked in the World Trade Center also were killed by terrorists.

"We're against the terrorists, too," he said. "Why judge me like them? We're fighting them harder than anyone."

Bosniaks, perhaps better than most, know terror.

During the Bosnian War from 1992 to 1995, the Bosnian Serb Army tried to kill all the Bosnian Muslims in territory it controlled in a targeted "ethnic cleansing" campaign.

The war culminated with the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. More than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were killed, and 25,000-30,000 Bosnian Muslim women were forcibly removed from the area. It was the largest mass killing in Europe since World War II and was determined in international court to be genocide.

"In Sarajevo, there were snipers and they couldn't go out in the street for fear of being shot," said Jan Reeves, director of the Idaho Office for Refugees.

Bosnian resettlement in Boise took place for about 10 years, with the last family arriving in 2004, Reeves said.

"People can hold on to their ethnic identity and still be part of America," he said. "The Basques are a perfect example of that."

WHAT'S INSIDE THE MOSQUE?

The renovations necessary to convert the building into a mosque were extensive, but among the Bosniaks are framers, painters, carpenters and ironworkers who volunteered to do the work, Ceric said.

Two large wooden racks on either side of the front doors hold the shoes of all who wish to enter the prayer hall.

Separate washrooms for men and women had to be installed because in addition to removing their shoes, worshippers are required to perform an ablution, a ritual washing, before praying.

A pastor from Weiser came and took the crosses, Ceric said.

There is no furniture in the prayer hall, which is oriented toward Mecca, the holiest city in Islam and the birthplace of the Prophet Muhammad.

Though it may sound counterintuitive, the hall points northeast - the shortest direct line to the holy city in Saudi Arabia is over the top of the globe.

"We gave the pews in charity," Miljkovic said. "What we give, we get back. The Wilder School District gave desks for two classrooms."

About 120-130 kids come to Sunday school to learn about Islam in Bosnian. The center also has a reading room, a kitchen and an apartment for an imam, or religious leader. The community would like to add a playground outside for the kids, who currently play in the parking lot.

Drivers who want to cut the light at the corner sometimes speed through while kids are out there, Ceric said.

They're working on a wrought-iron fence to stop that, he said.

Missing from the building is one of the most recognizable features of Islamic architecture: the towering minaret, which will be built after the building is paid for, Miljkovic said.

"We're trying to pay the mortgage as fast as we can," he said. "Islam prohibits mortgages, but this is a different culture."

Source: Idaho Statesman

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