There is a hillside in Sarajevo that overlooks a famous wartime cemetery, home to a sea of graves eerily marked ‘-1993’. At the top of the hill, a maternity hospital sits, welcoming each day new members of a generation of Bosnian children who will have no memory of war. On this hillside, 25 trees stretch towards the sky, commemorating 25 years of relief and repair. They celebrate the birth of Islamic Relief Bosnia, and they symbolize hope for the future.
I had the immense honor of being present for this tree planting ceremony, and being able to meet the two men pictured below.
Dr. Hany El-Banna, the founder of Islamic Relief Worldwide, met Semir Velija Kukuruzović 25 years ago when they worked together during the worst of the Bosnian war to start Islamic Relief Bosnia. They have both seen and sacrificed more than my generation can begin to imagine, and capturing this moment truly moved me. The two planted the first of the 25 trees, and as they lowered its young trunk together into the earth, Dr. Hany kissed Velija on the head. In that one short moment, I saw the emotions of a lifetime of service manifest before me. Love. Loss. Sacrifice. Triumphs and failures. Friendship. Brotherhood. As I released the shutter on my camera, it froze them all.
I had the privilege of sitting with Dr. Hany and Velija throughout my trip to Bosnia, and I remain in awe of these men. Dr. Hany was lighthearted and silly, making jokes and animal noises and encouraging our group to ask him “stupid questions.” Before he would address a room of people, I always saw his lips move ever so slightly in supplication, and I would look away, feeling like I was intruding on a private conversation between him and God. He told me to never call the people we serve beneficiaries, that we are the beneficiaries, that we are the ones to say thank you. He was the life of the party, but I frequently saw him retreat, looking on as though he was watching us all from far away.
Velija was one of the kindest people I have ever met, and his character reminded me of our Prophet’s (saw). He had a gentle disposition yet an unwavering strength. I asked him if he lost anyone in the war, and without blinking he answered, “my eldest daughter.” His eyes glistened with pain and loss, but his face remained soft with kindness. Everywhere we went, he would sing beautiful nasheeds. He was constantly doing whatever he could to lift our spirits and make us feel welcome. When I asked him what advice he would give young people, he said: “Life is short, use your time to do good. 25 years went like that,” and he snapped his fingers.
Meeting Dr. Hany and Velija made me reflect a lot on my generation and my younger brothers and sisters. Young people tend to think they know everything. We are quick to roll our eyes at “old school mentalities,” priding ourselves on our creativity and ability to think outside the box. We forget the sacrifice of men and women who spent their lives building the very safe spaces that we use to dismiss them. There is an ocean of wisdom to learn from our predecessors. Beyond the technical and institutional knowledge we can gain, we must study the characters they nurtured that allowed them to build a legacy. To be strong yet kind, gentle through a storm. To work for something greater than oneself, and trust the outcome to God. I ask myself and my readers, what legacy do you hope to look back on 25 years from now, and have you yet begun to build it?