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To Heal the Spirit : Religion: Through his relief organization, Mufid Sokolovich aids Bosnian Muslims. But he also works to nourish the soul--by talking about his faith.

May 24, 1994|MARY ROURKE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On his day off, Mufid Sokolovich rises at 2:30 a.m. to phone his family in Zagreb, Croatia. He asks his brother to arrange for a lamb to be slaughtered and its meat distributed to the poor. It's every good Muslim's duty during the Eid Al-Adha, a feast celebrated this past weekend around the world.

Sokolovich is a computer consultant based in Costa Mesa. But he moonlights as president of the charitable American Bosnia-Herzegovina Assn. "For a good Muslim, religion covers every aspect of living," he says. "Humanitarianism is just part of it. We do everything in the name of God."

Now approaching 40, he has considered becoming an imam, a Muslim clergyman, which would require several years of formal training. Whether or not he takes that step, religion is the center of his life. Along with managing the relief program he founded two years ago, he helps organize conferences and gives lectures about Islam or the Bosnian war. There is rarely a day he doesn't promote his faith.

Sokolovich would say that this is his obligation, but there is more to it. He has made himself a tireless voice for Bosnian Muslims in California.

They have been a little-known entity, even among other Muslims, largely because their European heritage sets them apart. When a local Islamic center recently put on a program for members with cultural roots in Pakistan, North Africa, Malaysia and the Middle East, some who attended didn't know there were Muslims in Bosnia.

Less well-known, perhaps, is that fewer than 20% of Bosnian Muslims practice their faith, experts say. Most are born into the culture of Islam but don't follow its religious traditions. Under communism, that was discouraged. As a high school teacher living in Sarajevo through the 1970s, Sokolovich attended the mosque in secret. "If my supervisors knew, I would have been dismissed from the school," he says.

As it was, he left the country in 1979 to attend graduate school at the University of Southwest Louisiana. He left his parents and his brother, Sekib, a medical doctor behind. Sekib later followed Mufid to Southern California and set up a practice. But he returned to Bosnia to help his people when the war started.

"My brother just married two days ago," Sokolovich says. He, as yet, has not. "Maybe I'm too picky," he shrugs.

Maybe he's too busy.

Since the war began two years ago, he figures that 250 Bosnians have come to Southern California. He has sponsored several, arranging for medical care, housing, food and clothing. And if he had his way, he would make good Muslims of them all.

On a recent Saturday, Sokolovich drove to the house his organization rents in Cerritos. Six Bosnians are staying there temporarily, as they await surgeries and follow-up treatments. Most of the treatments are donated by local doctors. One young man lost both legs to sniper bullets, a middle-aged woman was shot through the chest and arm, and a 15-month-old has had two open-heart operations.

The house, furnished with donations, is immaculate. Still, the women tell Sokolovich that they need a vacuum cleaner. The baby's mother serves Turkish coffee and asks Sokolovich to arrange for the boy's circumcision, a religious ritual practiced by Muslims as well as Jews.

Conversation is in Bosnian; here and there, Sokolovich translates. "Now they are asking, 'When is the Eid?' " he says, smiling awkwardly. "They thought it was next Tuesday."

Along with supplying life's necessities, Sokolovich supplies what \o7 he\f7 considers necessary--education about the faith. "You have to be very careful," he says. "If you are helping people in need and you talk about going to the mosque, they might do it for the wrong reason. They might go just to please you, to do what they think you want."

His approach is more subtle. "I like to come to the house when it is close to prayer time," he says. For a Muslim, that is five times each day. "I'll say, 'I'm going to pray now. Why don't you join me?'

"It is our duty to spread information about our faith," he explains.

There are some 500,000 Muslims in Southern California and more than 40 mosques. But finding one that feels familiar is difficult.

"In Sarajevo, every street has its own mosque," says Adina Londrc, a physician who was in California on vacation when the war broke out and never went home. The first Los Angeles mosque she attended was far from her Altadena home and from Good Samaritan Hospital, where she now works. She consulted with Sokolovich, whom she knew in Sarajevo. He told her about Mas Jid Omar Ibn Al Khattab Mosque, near the hospital.

Londrc has seen Bosnians at the mosque whom she never saw praying in Sarajevo. "Maybe because of the war," she says, "something is being born in them."

Indeed, even some Bosnian Americans who haven't practiced the faith in years are finding strength in the religious community. "I turned to the mosque because I didn't know what to do," says longtime resident Subha Sulejmanagic.

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