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Updated on 12 March 2018
My A Level exams were over, the month of Ramadhan had just ended and I was looking forward to a relaxing summer vacation. I was going to embark on the next chapter of my life as I was all set to go off to university and I knew this was the last work-free summer before the next challenge.
A week into this vacation, my father told me we were going on a Ziarat trip to Iraq with the newly appointed office bearers of The World Federation. Upon hearing this news, my dream summer was brought crashing down and I was a little dismayed that I would have to spend almost a week with the so called ‘big shots’ of the Khoja community. I wondered how I could enjoy a trip with a bunch of ‘old, boring and out of touch’ seniors and the only piece of good news was that I had the privilege and honor to visit Imam Hussain (as). Even this could not cheer me up as I felt the company would ruin the trip. Nevertheless, I promised myself I would dedicate 100% to this trip and go to Iraq with an open mind with the intention of seeking closeness to Allah (swt) through the visit of the Holy Imams (as).
My family left for Karbala on Thursday afternoon so that we could spend Thursday night in the Haram of Imam Hussain (as). Upon arrival at the hotel we met members of The World Federation team, which included the President, Vice President, Secretary General, Assistant Secretary General, Treasurer, Assistant Treasurer, Head of Marketing and Communications as well as the honorable Sheikh Alidina, the newly appointed Head of Islamic Education. On first impressions, I felt intimidated and had the feeling that I was an outcast and wouldn't be welcome. My initial thoughts seemed to be proven correct and I was dreading to spend the rest of the trip with these people. Never in a million years did I expect to be proven wrong.
We enjoyed Dua Kumayl that night at the Haram and doing the Ziarat of Imam Hussain (as) and Hazrat Abbas (as) brought me a great deal of joy and peace. After Fajr, with a heavy heart, we had to bid farewell to Karbala and embark on the next phase of our journey to Samarra and Kadhmain.
On the way to Samarra, we stopped on the outskirts of Karbala to observe one of the projects that The World Federation were working on where they were building houses for the refugees who had lost their homes during the tragic battles with ISIS. I mustered up the courage to ask a few questions to a couple of the executives and was pleasantly surprised with the eager and friendly responses. Observing these projects was truly heartwarming and seeing the hard work and effort being put into such selfless projects was one that brought a larger appreciation to life. I felt a passion for the work being done and enjoyed the visit to the site. I thought, maybe these World Federation members weren't so bad after all. After that, we departed for Samarra followed by Kadhmain where we had the privilege to do the Ziarat of our 10th and 11th Imam (as), and 7th and 9th Imam (as) respectively.
We slept in Kadhmain on Friday night and had the opportunity to spend some time in the Haram. During our time in Kadhmain, a few of the team engaged in discussions with me giving me some much-needed advice about my future as well as giving me some insight into what The World Federation is all about. I slowly learned about how this organisation wasn't just a Khoja institution. It had a much bigger agenda then that. It was about helping people in need, engaging more people within the community and focusing on the spirituality of our community and making the world a better place. It had a strategy that was both impressive and inspirational as it focused on making us better Muslims but also encouraged us to help others and show the light in this world. Talking to some of the members made me realise that they knew what was going on and at the same time were engaging in conversations that were educational and entertaining bringing that balance that every youth desires but not all are aware of. These guys were actually cool!
Time flew by in Kadhmain and before we knew it, we came to the final part of the trip and took the bus to Najaf where we spent two nights. We arrived in Najaf just before Maghrib on Saturday and were honored to pray in the Haram of Imam Ali (as). Following this, we visited Ayatullah Bashir Najafi. When I sat in his presence I felt a certain awe to be in his presence. By the time we got back to the hotel it was midnight and we had an early morning as we were going to visit Ayatullah Sistani in the morning. I assumed we’d go back to the hotel and get a good night’s sleep so we could be fresh and ready for the important meeting.
However, due to our limited time, my dad suggested we wake early and visit Masjid Kufa at 3AM. I was quite surprised as I thought he would want to get some rest for the big day but nevertheless, how could I say no to such an experience? When I woke up to go to the bus for the trip to Kufa, I was gobsmacked at the fact that not only were my mom and dad coming, but half the WF camp (All consisting of 30+ men) were joining us in the early hours despite their hectic schedules. It truly was a mesmerising experience.
At 9AM, we had the privilege of meeting Ayatullah Sistani. Any fatigue from the late night instantly evaporated at the sight of the Maraja’e. Being in front of a man of such high authority was both inspirational and humbling. It was a huge honour to visit him. His attitude was one of incredible humility as he refused to take credit for the spectacular victory over ISIS despite 2 million Iraqis answering his call. Rather than claim the win, he said it was because of Ameerul-Momineen (as) showing just how special a human he was. It was an inspirational meeting that left one yearning for more.
We also managed to squeeze in Ayatullah Hakim, Ayatullah Ishaq Fayadh and went to Masjid Sahla all in a single day as everyone had to leave on Monday. I was amazed at the ability of the WF team to manage to do so much in 24 hours. These guys were all over the ages of 30 but they had the hearts of youths and my respect and admiration for these members was at an absolute peak. On Monday morning, with a heavy heart not only did I have to bid farewell to a wonderful country and the holy Imams in Samarra, Kadhmain, Najaf and Karbala; but I also had to say goodbye to people who turned me from sceptical to inspired. These members didn’t only showed me what The World Federation is about, they showed me that it was in the hands of dedicated people who were committed to making this world a better place. I said goodbye not only to companions on a Ziarat trip, I bade farewell to a new bunch of friends.
I came to Iraq with a negative mind-frame regarding my companionship. I left having had the best experience of my life, with an increased knowledge of what our community truly is about and a passion to make a difference in the near future.
Rear Admiral Alex Burton, Commander United Kingdom Maritime Forces & Rear Admiral Surface Ships, accompanied by other Royal Navy personnel visited Al Mahdi Centre.
Read the full message from Shabbar Dhalla, Vice President of The World Federation.