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Bridging Cultures: Bosnian Muslim Student Promotes Tolerance

APPLE VALLEY • He was born into the middle of a war, with his mother hoping he’d stay in her womb as long as possible so things on the outside would be better by the time he arrived.

When food assistance came, the American care package falling from the sky crashed through the new roof his father and grandpa had just finished installing. They were certainly grateful for the aid, they’d later tell him with a chuckle, just a bit disappointed in the way it got there.

Despite growing up in war-torn Bosnia in the second half of the ’90s, Abedine “Abe” Kustura recalls a happy, well-rounded childhood — he was a stellar athlete, hard-working student and always interested in learning about the rest of the world.

He especially dreamed of making it to the United States, and when he got his chance as an exchange student at Granite Hills High School, he literally jumped for joy, especially when he heard he had been assigned to California — land of the Pacific Ocean, beautiful people and Los Angeles Lakers. Since the start of the school year, the 17-year-old has been sharing information about his home country and culture while experiencing life as an American teenager in Apple Valley.

“There’s so much misunderstanding. We need to learn more about each other,” he said. “The best way is when you talk with people.”

Kustura was among a select few chosen to represent his home country out of thousands who applied for the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study Program. The YES Program, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, launched in 2002 as a way to build tolerance and understanding between youths in the United States and predominately Islamic nations. As Kustura puts it, the program seeks “to kill the stereotypes about pro-Islamic countries, to try to prove to Americans that they are not all the same as they see on the TV and as they see in the newspapers.”

Kustura, an outgoing, upbeat teen with a big smile and quick wit, remembers how his Granite Hills football teammates reacted when he told them he was a Muslim. They looked at him in disbelief.

“No, you’re not ... you’re the same as us,” he recalled the other players insisting one day in the locker room. He laughed it off and told them they were right — but that he was Muslim, too. Kustura likes to emphasize the values the major world religions have in common: “Love your neighbor as yourself. Respect others. Love your mom and dad. Be thankful to God because He created you. Don’t kill. You have to love.”

“Too many people don’t want to look at the similarities. They’re only trying to find the differences to divide each other,” he said. “If you have any little piece of brain in your head you will realize you need to judge people how they’re acting, how they’re behaving, not because of what their religion is, their ethnicity.”

Kustura discourages people from attaching labels to a religion based on the destructive actions of an extremist. Though the majority of his community back home is Muslim, Kustura said he has Christian neighbors and friends. He will visit and wish them well around Christmastime as a gesture of respect.

“There is a lot of extremism in this world and they are sending the wrong message to this world. You can’t generalize all the people just because of one person,” he said. “Islam is a really beautiful religion. It respects every other religion. There is not hate. You cannot hate anyone else.”

At Granite Hills, Kustura played varsity soccer, swimming and football — after sitting on the bench the first few games, he said, he had one of the   best moments of his life when he scored a point-after-touchdown at Homecoming. Science teacher David Whiteside said Kustura has the highest grade in his regular chemistry class, though he noted exchange students tend to be among the brightest in their home countries, too.

“The foreign exchange kids really value education,” Whiteside said. “Their study habits are better, they’re work habits are better, they balance their social and home lives better.”

Never short of words, Kustura’s not one to turn down an opportunity for a meaningful conversation, and he had no trouble winging it and “speaking from the heart” when he gave a speech to U.S. Department of State officials in San Francisco a few months ago.

He also tries to lead by example. Since arriving at Granite Hills this past fall, he’ has completed more than 120 hours of community service at a Victorville Methodist church, did the AIDS Walk Los Angeles and helped clean up his neighborhood. He’s eager to spread his new passion for volunteerism back home, where he would like to launch fundraising events based on what he’s learned here.

“He’s a wonderful person. He’s an honest person. He’s a moral person,” said Connie Johnson, a counselor at Granite Hills who has been hosting Kustura at her home. “He’s just the nicest, most generous, and he has honestly really touched my heart.”

Though he is excited to be reunited with his friends and parents next month, Kustura said he will miss Apple Valley and intends to return to the U.S. for college, with his sights set on Stanford, San Diego and UCLA. He is pondering joining the U.S. Navy and pursuing a career in business, banking or aviation. He hopes to travel the world and continue working to build global ties.

He may have been born into a war, but growing up during a time of rebuilding seems to have instilled in him an optimistic outlook and commitment to driving positive change.

“The world is hinging on us and we need to make our future better for our children,” Kustura said . “We cannot be selfish.”

To read the original article in the Victorville Daily Press, click here.