Najwa Beit Shawish, MD joined dozens of Muslim community members from the Milwaukee area for a Winter Umrah from December 22 to 31.

Organized through ISM Brookfield, Dr. Shawish and her fellow pilgrims visited the holy cities of Makkah and Madinah. She shared her thoughts and experiences along the journey in this essay.

When I have a hardship, I feel like I need to escape someplace I can hide, where no one can find me. It was during this time that I got an eMail from ISM Brookfield. They were planning on going for Umrah and it was open to the community.

I was not sure if one week of winter break would be enough to make a trip overseas easily, and come back to work without problems. The other issue was that I would be traveling with 4 children, be responsible for their safety and care, and get them back to school promptly. So I tried to push the idea away, but it kept coming back no matter how hard I tried to ignore.

Then I ran the proposal by my kids to get their thoughts and reactions. Only my oldest son, who is 20, said it was a good idea. He wanted to visit Saudi Arabia to understand why he heard controversies about the country and its people. My daughter, who is 18, felt that she would miss out on her time with friends during winter break. She asked, “why do you think I will enjoy going on a trip that means a lot more to you than to me?” She absolutely rejected the idea, and I was forced to bribe her with the promise of other fun stuff along the way.

This was my first trip, and I did not know how I was going to feel walking in the land where the greatest human being had walked. I asked myself, what if I feel nothing or not enough, will that mean I am a weak believer? How am I going to get my kids to feel something if I cannot feel it?

And, I would be going with a community that was mostly new to me, since I live somewhat far from Brookfield. I usually attend functions at the community center closer to my home, so I was concerned that the group might not like me, or vice versa. I did not want to feel that way while I was preparing for a spiritual journey.

The trip planning was easy. The travel agency was very helpful, and the airport customs was the best ever. We left from Chicago O’Hare with no hassle at all.

When we got to Haram Masjid and Kaaba, we were speechless. It was like going beyond the earth. It was a feeling that I never experienced in my life, all the history of prophet Abraham’s family and Mohammad (PBUH) came to me. I could see Abraham’s wife with her son Ismael by themselves in that valley surrounded by huge mountains, with no life whatsoever. I could see Hager running between mountains, looking for water to give her son. And I saw prophet Muhammed with his family, cousins, and uncles there.

No palaces or gardens, no long or short pillars remained standing, nothing left but a story, handed down by people for generations, that is the only message left for us.

It made me consider what we were fighting for, what we were running from or running to?

In Medina is the prophet’s grave, house, and Masjid with green dome. We visited his grave and his Masjid, and we prayed. The house where he lived in peace, no judgment, no ego, no possessions more than what was needed from day to day, was a home filled with hardships. His children died one after another, his family members were lost, his Dawah’ struggled but yet it was the most peaceful, thankful, and loving house that ever existed on earth.

My teenage daughter came with her list of prayers. She ran to Kaaba and Rawda like a little child and prayed hard. She was the happiest I had ever seen her.

My oldest son told us when he stopped by Kaaba ”for the first time in my life I felt I have to stop and think for a while, this can’t be anything but the truth.”

My middle daughter said, “I feel very safe here, can we move to Saudi Arabia? I can wear Hijab tomorrow and feel fine, it is so peaceful here.”

They were amazed about how comforting and tranquil the place was.

The group I travelled with was very nice and helpful. I got to know Nada and her four lovely daughters, they were very pleasant all through the trip, no whining whatsoever. I got to know Aisha and was amazed by her love of knowledge and her eagerness to perfect her Umrah. Her two sons had very short hair cuts at the end of Umrah, which was part of Umrah rituals. My children, however, went with a longer haircut.

Normally I do not enjoy taking pictures, but there were no restrictions by the Saudi workers. I took a few snaps that I forgot to share with my group. I did hear negative remarks regarding the Saudi staff at the holy sites, but I did not encounter any negativity, they were very helpful and nice.

During part of the trip coming back to the States, we had to stop in Istanbul, Turkey. There was a 6 hour layover, and we made the most of that time. It was amazing, we got to buy food from street vendors, which brought back childhood memories, and we visited a few historical sites. I was also impressed that American customs let us bring “Zamzam water” from Saudi Arabia on the return home, which is from Zamzam spring in Mecca.

My middle son had an interview later at school, which included telling a story from his last vacation. One of the things he shared in that interview was how we stereotype cultures and countries, and how much he felt Saudi families love and care for each other and for their women.

I shared my experience in Turkey with my non-Muslim friends as well as the Abrahamic history of the trip. I am planning on going for Hajj this year or in 2019. I already miss Kaaba and the prophet’s Masjid.

I encourage Muslim communities to do Umrah more often, it definitely brought our community together, and I will never forget my travel group.