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Melisa Sarajlic and Senada Gusic were Lincoln kindergartners when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

The girls, both Bosnian immigrants, didn’t grasp the magnitude of the event at the time, but they clearly remember hostility and distrust for anyone Muslim.

So they kept quiet about their faith, their beliefs and their traditions.

“Growing up was really hard. I was struggling with my culture and religion,” recalled Sarajlic, now 18. “In school when people talked about their religion, I didn’t want to tell them. It was so hard; I just wanted to fit in.”

Her parents fled Bosnia during the war. They chose to immigrate to the United States because of the promise of the "American Dream,” Sarajlic said.

“In our quest for the ultimate ‘American Dream,’ our parents realized that we were all going to lose our heritage and faith,” she recalled. “So all the parents decided to rent out a room at (what is now) the People’s City Mission (Homeless Prevention Center) for us to gather together and not be afraid to share our religion with each other.”

They created Sabah Youth Group -- a cadre of about 20 teens and 20-somethings who pray, play and work together to live the tenets of a faith that calls for acceptance of all.

“It (Sabah Youth Group) is the only place where we aren't judged for our religion, heritage and way of life,” Sarajlic said.

The group of mostly Bosnian and some Middle Eastern immigrants soon outgrew the tiny room at 27th and O streets -- especially during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

So the Sabah Youth Group held a donation night -- asking their families and fellow Muslims to donate money toward finding a new building for the community.

They raised nearly $200,000.

In 2008, they bought the long-empty Abundant Life Family Church at 1145 Furnas Ave. Hardworking parents and lots of elbow grease have transformed the church into a mosque. What was once the sanctuary is now the prayer room. Old church pews line the walls for people to sit and observe. A giant Turkish rug covers the floor. An area that once served as a stage for the church was tiled and transformed into rooms designed for the Muslim practice of washing hands, feet and faces before prayer.

In the old place, we had to clean our feet in a bathroom sink, Sarajlic said.

“You can just imagine an 80-year-old woman trying to put her feet in the sink,” she said.

Downstairs is a kitchen, a room for dining that is filled to near capacity during Ramadan and the breaking of fast at sundown.

Walls that once separated a long space into preschool classrooms are long gone. The area is the gathering place for Sabah Youth Group. Here they play ping pong, air hockey and video games.

Across the hall, another room is used for homework and child’s play.

Sabah Mosque opened one year ago. It is a home away from home for the youth group.

Gusic, 18, is a full-time freshman at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, double majoring in political science and global studies and minoring in English. She also oversees the mosque, coordinating events and programs, teaching Sunday school and finding ways in which she and her fellow Muslim youth can give back to the community.

Sarajlic is a freshman at Southeast Community College but will transfer to UNL in the fall to pursue a degree in international business.

Between school and jobs, both women are stretched for time -- but the youth group and the mosque remain a top priority.

Gusic remembers her parents’ concerns after living in the United States for several years. They expected their children to be Americanized, but they also wanted them to keep the traditions of their heritage and faith.

“My parents saw a change in my personality, and that’s when they went ‘Hey, listen up!’” Gusic said. “I got my heritage down, and now I needed to get my religion.”

In Sunday school she learned her chapters and verses with people her own age and of her own culture.

“I had a blast,” she said. “And I found out there were more Bosnians than just my family -- the majority of the population came here from the war.”

It is this love of faith and humanity that drives Gusic and Sarajlic to spread the word about Sabah Youth Group -- who and what they are. They want to attract Muslims, as well as people of other faiths or no faith to come and to learn -- and more importantly, understand that Islam is not about terror and world domination, but of love, peace and worshipping God.

“We want people to know about us and accept us,” Sarajlic said. “Even some Bosnians and Muslims don’t come, because they are afraid if they are here everyone will characterize them and treat them differently.

“It takes courage to come.”

But maybe, one day, the fear will disappear, Gusic and Sarajlic said.

One way to do that is to give back.

“When we got here, we needed to rely on the help of others,” Gusic said. “They (community) helped us get on our feet, and we want to do the same for people who need it -- that is just as big.”

Another way is to live their faith as it is truly intended to be -- not what is often portrayed in the media.

“Religion is the most important thing. … It makes your footprint in the world,” Sarajlic said.

To learn more about Sabah Mosque and its youth group, visit the Facebook page: Sabah Youth Group.

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Reach Erin Andersen at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

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