By Laurie Dunklee
Getting out of Bosnia was like winning the Lotto – it was a one-in-a-million chance,” says Minela Ibisevic about her arrival in Denver as a refugee in 2002. “Our Bosnian community here is strong because of our shared past.”
Denver’s Bosnian Muslims have a new home at 36th and Sheridan, where the community has transformed a vacant Baptist church into the Mile High Islamic Center.
“About 30 Bosnian families live within a five-mile radius of the new mosque and about 275 are in Colorado,” said Nihad Poljakovic, who arrived in Denver in 2000. “We chose this location because it is central for people from Castle Rock to Boulder.”
He said most of the Bosnians in Colorado are refugees, having fled the atrocities of the Bosnian War. The war started in 1992, when the government of the Yugoslav republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina declared its independence from Yugoslavia. Over the next several years, Bosnian Serb forces, with the backing of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav army, perpetrated atrocious crimes against civilians, most of them Bosnian Muslims, resulting in the deaths of some 100,000 people by 1995.
Ibisevic and Poljakovic are on the board of the new mosque and Ibisevic volunteers as a youth leader. She works in finance for hospitals and Poljakovic owns a trucking company.
“Lots of Bosnians own their own businesses because they are ambitious, and they have leadership and management skills,” says Ibisevic.
The community bought the building in 2011 and met in the church basement until the upstairs was completed this year. The mosque’s design features two domes, a minaret and multiple arches.
“Our architect was inspired by the famous Blue Mosque in Turkey and he travelled there to study it before completing our design,” said Poljakovic.
He said much of the original wooden roof structure was replaced with iron beams to support the domes. The domes are part of the structure and are open to the prayer hall inside with skylights and chandeliers. The large prayer hall has thick carpet with a pattern of hundreds of individual rectangles for worshippers to perform prayer movements. The Imam, or spiritual leader, leads daily prayers from a small alcove at the front of the room, or atop a raised platform for special Friday prayers.
Separate mosque entryways for men and women contain places, called ablution rooms, to leave their shoes and wash their feet and hands before prayer. A curtain separates the men’s and women’s areas.
“We want to be clean and look our best for God,” Poljakovic said.
Muslims pray five times a day, wherever they are: at sunrise, noon, afternoon, sunset and a few hours after sunset.
“Spiritually, it’s about our connection to everything, including the Earth’s cycles,” Ibisevic said.
Hundreds of members of the Muslim Bosnian community gathered with neighbors of the mosque to celebrate its opening last month.
“We invited about 100 of our neighbors to come over and get acquainted,” said Poljakovic. “People want to learn, to see who we are. We welcome dialogue with the larger community.”
“People who learn about Muslims from the TV or the Internet tend to have misconceptions,” said Ibisevic. “We try to break the barrier of fear by encouraging them to get to know us.”
Ibisevic was 13 when she escaped from Bosnia with her mother, a brother and an uncle. She was in Srebrenica when 8,000 people were massacred – widely recognized as the worst episode of genocide of the war.
“Eighty members of my family were killed, including my father, both grandfathers, cousins, uncles and an aunt who was seven months pregnant. I saw horrific things. The ‘uncle’ who escaped with us isn’t really my uncle, but my mom adopted him because he had lost everyone.”
“The genocide was because of our different beliefs,” said Poljakovic, who was 17 when the war broke out. “Srebrenica was the hardest, but not the only mass-killing. Most of us were victims, whether we lost our lives or our loved ones.”
Ibisevic says the Muslim community at the mosque is her family now.
“Here we share our stories to understand what happened to us and to find closure. Since I grew up without a father, I look to the men of the community for advice, like when to change the oil in my car. Our bonds are strong because we take care of each other. When my mom was diagnosed with cancer, I was working 10-hour days and so our community members took turns looking in on her. We can count on each other in an emergency.”
Ibisevic teaches the 80 children and teenagers in the community, most of whom were born here, about their origins.
“We teach the Bosnian language and traditional dancing and food. They learn about their culture and see where their parents came from. Adults in the community teach skills to the kids that they don’t learn in school, like how to buy a house. We teach the values of the community while having fun.”
Poljakovic said they want to provide a roadmap to clear thinking.
“Drugs and alcohol are a primary concern and so we want to bring the youth in, rather than let them learn harmful behaviors on the street.
“We’re trying to be a better community than we were and express that to the younger generations. Two generations from now they won’t remember Srebrenica. We learn to forgive but we can never forget.”