YES, building the bridges of understanding

Published 6:48 pm Friday, May 21, 2010

Hrushit Killawala wanted to come to America. He wanted to experience a culture that he only knew about from television and movies. He had an idea of what he thought America would be like, but Alabama?

“I had never heard of Alabama,” Killawala said with a smile.” I ‘Googled’ Alabama to see where it was and I thought that would be good.”

Any place in the United States would have been good for Killawala. It didn’t matter to him as long as he was accepted into the YES (Youth Exchange and Study) program.

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YES is an innovative high school exchange program funded by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs. This public diplomacy initiative builds bridges of international understanding, especially between Americans and people in countries with significant Muslim populations.

YES was the main avenue to where Killawala wanted to go.

He is seeking a career as an animator and studying in the United States was “my best chance, my best option” for training.

First Killawala had a long trail of paper work to wade through.

The first evaluation was 14 pages of personal information. The next evaluation was 25 pages detailing what the applicant would like to have in a host family. Then there were 12 pages devoted to family and background.

At that point the field of 120 applicants from his city of Mumbai had been reduced to 10. Those applicants and their parents were interviewed personally and then eight applicants were selected for the program.

Hrushit Killawala was among the fortunate ones but time was quickly running out and he still didn’t have a host family.

That’s when the Lord began to work in the lives of the Singleton family of Banks.

Lavon Singleton is pastor of the Louisville Assembly of God Church and has a friend, who is involved in the YES program and has seen the benefits for both the exchange students and the host families.

Singleton and his wife, Mylia, and sons, Ryan, 12, and Andrew 10, discussed the opportunity and prayed about it.

“We wanted to make sure that having an exchange student in our home was something that Ryan and Andrew would be comfortable with,” Mylia said. “We were talking about where the student might sleep and Andrew said, ‘He can have my room if we’ll just get him.’ And that was it. We realized that we could benefit from having Hrushit Killawala in our home.”

In his home city of Mumbai, India, which is the second most populous city in the world with nearly 14 million people, Killawala packed his bags to fly across the ocean to rural Banks, Alabama.

“My mother tired to find Banks on Google Earth but we couldn’t see it for the trees,” Killawala said, laughing.

Leaving was not easy, Killawala is an only child and it was difficult to leave his family and his home for a year but he wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to study in the United States.

The biggest transition for Killawala was not the language. He had studied “British English” for 12 years.

“The language was no problem for me. The Southern dialect is different from the way I speak English but I soon learned how to say, ‘y’all,’” Killawala said, laughing.

Mylia said although language was no problem for her new “son,” she and her husband realized that his name would cause the students at Pike County High School some problems.

“We told him to find a name that would be easier for the students and teachers to pronounce,” Mylia said. “So, he took the first three letters from his first name and the first two from his last name and his American name was ‘Hruki,’ which is pronounced, ‘Rookie’”.

Hruki quickly assimilated into the Southeast Alabama way of life and was soon accepted by his schoolmates at Pike County High School.

“The biggest adjustment was the quietness,” he said. “In Mumbai, there is noise all the time. It’s never quiet. But here in Banks, it’s always quiet.”

Hruki said the sounds of the crickets and frogs are like a “peaceful melody” and he has become fond of the music.

For the Singletons, having an exchange student in the house meant having to make some adjustments and some concessions.

“There are some things that Hruki doesn’t eat, no beef and pork,” Mylia said. “So, we had a lot of poultry but the funny thing was that he didn’t like chicken and dumplings. I was so sure that he would that I gave him a big helping. He always cleans his plate so he ate every bite. When I asked, truthfully, he said that he really didn’t like chicken and dumplings.”

“But I do like grits,” Hruki said with a smile. “I really do and sweet tea. Yes.”

Unfamiliar with air conditioning, Hruki wore a coat inside for a long time before adjusting.

He likes walking the dirt roads that lead to the Singleton home and jumping on the trampoline “and watching TV.”

And he has become a big fan of the University of Alabama and has added “Roll Tide” to his vocabulary.

“I know ‘The Bear,’ too,’ Hruki said like a true Bama fan.

“When he first got here, I told him that everybody was either an Alabama fan or an Auburn fan and he had to choose,” Mylia said. “He watched two games and decided on Alabama.”

Lavon and Mylia took their three “sons” to the beach and on fishing trips and church was family time.

Hruki played roller hockey in Mumbai but he had never seen a football game or played a game of baseball. His American brothers taught him about both and he was accepted on the baseball team at PCHS.

“At first, the students didn’t talk to me much but, after a couple of weeks, they started to ask me where I was from and then we became friends,” Hruki said. “I liked the school very much and the teachers are very good instructors and very helpful. I took English, U.S. history, government and physical education but school is very different here. You must do homework. In India, we don’t do homework.”

Playing baseball and attending the senior prom are two things that will hold a special place in Hruki’s memory.

“I feel I am a part of the school and will be honored to receive a diploma,” he said.

On May 27, Hruki will walk with the other members of the PCHS Class of 2010. It will be both a happy time and a sad one.

He will leave around the first of June for New York where he will spend time with relatives before returning to India in July.

“Being here for a year has been a good thing for me,” he said. “I have learned a lot about family life in America and about the culture of the South. I have also learned about Christ and God and I have had a wonderful time in church.”

And, when he says goodbye to his American mom and dad and brothers, Hruki said that he will cry.

“Certainly I will cry,” he said. “But I hope to come back one day. I would like to attend the University of Alabama and one day make a career of animation. But right now, I am just proud to be a member of the Singleton family and a graduating senior at Pike County High School.”