August 1-8, 2007
By ANDY HART, The Hartford News Staff Writer
Most immigrants groups that have come to Hartford have followed a familiar path, be they Italian, Dominican or Jamaican. First come the people. Then a few shops and restaurants. Then a house of worship that also functions as a center of the community.
That well-worn path is now being followed by Hartford’s Bosnian community. The Bosnians first began arriving in Hartford in the mid 1990’s. They were refugees from the bitter civil war that had erupted there after the break-up of the former Yugoslavia. The conflict was given a particularly bitter dimension because of the “ethnic cleansing” carried out primarily by Christian Serbians against Bosnia's large Muslim population.
It is estimated that approximately 250,000 people died in the fighting and over 3 million were left homeless in what is considered Europe’s worst refugee crisis since World War II.
These refugees were scattered to many parts of the world, including Hartford. Most of the Bosnians settled in the South End, around Franklin Avenue. The community quickly grew to about 500 families and Franklin Avenue soon had three Bosnian grocery stores and two Bosnian restaurants.
But something was missing.
And so, in the spring of 2004, a small group of Bosnian Muslims formed the Bosnian American Islamic Cultural Center (BAICC) and began holding prayer services in a small room adjacent to Padula’s Produce Market at the corner of Franklin Avenue and South Street.
The worshippers were led by Mirzet Mehmedovic, an Imam who was formally trained at a madrasa (an Islamic seminary) in Bosnia.
Imam Mirzet said there are a few other mosques in the Greater Hartford area, but services there are held in Arabic and English and many of the older Bosnian refugees have trouble understanding either language. He also said the Bosnians wanted a mosque of their own to carry on their culture as well as their religion. Bosnians tend to be more moderate in their practice of Islam, he said. For instance, Imam Mirzet said, men and woman attend services together at the BAICC, although they stand in different groups.
Having a mosque in the neighborhood is also convenient, since Muslims must pray five times a day: Fajr (sunrise), Zuhr (noon), Asr (afternoon), Magrib (sunset) and Isha (night, around 10 pm, depending on the season). The prayers can be said at home, but Imam Mirzet said that, according to the Koran, it is 25 times better to say them along with fellow Muslims.
Friday’s evening service draws the most, with well over 100 people attending, but Imam Mirzet said there are always at least a few worshippers at each of the five prayer services he holds daily.
The BAICC soon outgrew its space next to Padula’s and a collection was taken up in the Bosnian community to purchase a separate building with room for expansion. Over $600,000 was raised and Imam Mirzet and Damir Hasa¬novic, President of the BAICC, began looking around for a suitable building. They found one at 595 Franklin Avenue and purchased it earlier this year. The building had originally been part of a automobile dealership and was also home to Heidi’s Uniform Shop for many years. After Heidi’s closed, the building was purchased by the Hartford Wes¬leyan Church. The Church began renovating the building but never got very far, primarily due to disputes with contractors.
It is highly unlikely that the BAICC will run into similar problems, since almost all the renovation work is being done by volunteers from the Bosnian community.
Every weekend and on many weekdays, up to 25 volunteers gather at the BAICC to work on the building.
Last Saturday, Imam Mirzet was excused from the construction work because of an injured hand and he had time to talk about the future of the BAICC.
“We are only using about half the building right now [for the mosque]. We’d like to put in some type of community center in the future,” he said. The building also has room for about five classrooms, Imam Mirzet said, and the BAICC hopes to open a weekend school for children interested in studying the Islamic faith this September.
“The most important thing is our children. We don’t want them to get into drugs and alcohol and other things that are, of course, forbidden by our faith,” said Imam Mirzet. “We want our children to practice selective assimilation...To combine the good things in our culture with the good things in American culture.”
Around 1 pm last Saturday, the volunteers began putting down their tools and heading into the BAICC mosque. Their boisterous talking and joking subsided as they washed up in preparation for the afternoon prayer service.