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Remembering the Srebrenica Massacre and a Conversation With a Serbian Convert

29/07/2015 10:20 BST | Updated 23/07/2016 10:59 BST

The Srebrenica massacre is being commemorated at a time of Islamophobia and when hate crime against Muslims is not uncommon.

When tragic events like Srebrenica occur, emotions are filled with sadness and most crucially anger, which often fuels fear of the 'other'. However, times like this should also remind us about the importance of building dialogue to overcome hatred.

When I met Milan Janis, a Serbian convert who having lost friends in the genocide decided to embrace Islam, I had to share his story:

Describe your upbringing?

We migrated to New Zealand from Montenegro when I was young, during the early 90's, a time of upheaval in that region.

We knew a few Muslim families, but as I recall we all kept to our own communities. Although, I was friends with a few Muslim boys! My parents wanted us to have a stable environment to grow up in, which wasn't present at that time back home.

Were there any difficulties, challenges or a particular event that led you to convert to Islam?

I had Muslim friends back home, and I believe they didn't fare too well during the wars and conflict. I lost some friends in the genocide.

This stuck with me a great deal through my teens and twenties. I didn't share my friend's intolerant views towards Muslims and Islam, especially after the events of 9/11.

With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and then learning about the situation in Palestine, I found myself drawn to researching as much as I could about Islam. The more I read of the Quran, the more of a connection I felt with it, it just made logical sense to me.

Much of what I was reading in the papers, hearing on TV, and in conversations with friends about events involving Muslims, had no connection to what I was learning.

To me, the biggest message in Islam was having a peaceful mindset that allowed you to see injustice and want to fix it.

It fitted with my belief of Christianity, but without the inconsistency that I had always felt was part of what the Church had bought into it. The evolution of Islam from the same sources just made easy sense to me.

How has converting to Islam changed your life?

Converting to Islam has very much changed my life, although, I was inquisitive and a rather peaceful chap before. I think those qualities intensified following conversion. The biggest change was admitting to myself that the life I was living was incompatible with how I understood Islam.

I was ruining myself with stress, keeping up appearances simply to "fit in", being a part of a money race to acquire material possessions to show off. I quit my job in IT to travel and experience Islamic culture as much as I could.

Through Islam I learnt to simplify myself to feel part of nature's creation rather than superior to it. I learnt to be against injustice everywhere, to be against what is detrimental and destructive to nature and humanity - to avoid the competiveness that has polluted our culture.

What was the response from your family and friends?

I happened to lose a lot of friends over my conversion. Initially it was a depressing reality, but as time went by it bothered me less, as to me, true friends stick around through thick and thin and support your choices.

Their attitudes towards Islam were based on what they had seen in the media, based on prejudice, intolerance and ignorance.

My immediate family was a mixed bag. My parents were relatively ambivalent, more towards ignoring my conversion and treating me as I was - to the point where they would forget that I was Muslim when commenting (not so nicely!) on contemporary news regarding Muslims.

Some members of my family however were, to put it mildly, extremely bigoted and intolerant, revealing a side of their character that I had never seen prior.

How confident are you in your faith, given all the negativity?

With the all the negativity towards Islam, nearly all based on ignorance or bigotry, my confidence in Islam as a force for good only increases. Truth and facts is always the best antidote to lies and falsehoods. This applies equally to those Muslims who distort its teachings, and to those non-Muslims who believe the former are those who are the bearers of the faith.

I believe the best way to challenge the negativity is to live how Muslims around the world are living - contributing members of society, doing good deeds and don't get their names and faces in the newspapers because they are not newsworthy. It's a tough path, but with confidence we can walk it.