Class of 2015
Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina/Amman, Jordan
Luka Vasilj and two friends were out for an evening stroll. Deep in conversation, their footsteps brought them, almost unbidden, across the narrow span of the Stari Most, an elegantly arching bridge first commissioned by the Ottoman Sultan in the sixteenth century, destroyed by Bosnian Croat mortar fire in 1993, and recently rebuilt. As the trio of Croatian friends descended into the Bosniak side of the city, looking much the same as any group of Muslim youths, two Bosniak men stopped to greet them: "Salaam aleykum."
Luka, who had just returned to his divided homeland after four years in Jordan, glanced up, flashed a smile, and reflexively replied to the Muslim greeting with the traditional response, saying, "Wa aleykum as-salaam."
It was not until he had walked a few more paces that he realized his friends were no longer beside him. The two Bosniak men also had stopped, and the air was thick with tension. His Croat friends, angered that Luka had acknowledged the Muslim greeting, muttered a terse, "Hvaljen Isus," meaning, 'Praised be Jesus,' and walked back across the Stari Most leaving Luka standing there alone and "puzzled by the fact that such a conflict could arise from two strangers wishing us peace."
In fact, the more his family moved in conjunction with his father's diplomatic career – they have lived in Turkey, Canada, Jordan and Slovenia – the more acutely Luka perceived the stark divisions that mar his native Bosnia and Herzegovina.
"In Jordan, I was never discriminated against because of my religion or nationality. In fact, I saw people being religious for reasons that transcended nationalism; unlike Bosnia, where Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Serbs often seem to hate one another."
In a world where simple greetings often constitute the boundary markers of ethnic hatred, Luka envisions language as a tool for peace: "There is no greater way to show one's understanding and respect for another culture than to learn to speak its language." To this end, he has worked to learn the local language in every place his travels have taken him, either picking it up on the street, in school, or through independent study.
"In addition to being fluent in Croatian and English; I have managed to become proficient in French, Spanish, Dutch, and Latin and conversational in German, Arabic, Macedonian, and Slovenian," says Luka, who was proclaimed "Student of the Generation" in his canton and awarded gold and silver medals in national and regional fencing championships.
Because of his passion for languages and penchant for practicing tolerance in the midst of deep-seated conflict, it seemed natural that Luka might follow in his father's footsteps as an ambassador. It was with this career path already in mind that he chose to study at the cosmopolitan hub that is NYU Abu Dhabi.
"NYU Abu Dhabi is definitely different from other American universities. The Ivy League schools—yes they accept international students, but, in the end, the vast majority of the student body ends up being American. There's a greater intensity of cultural exchange here at NYU AD."
Another draw was the region itself. Ever since his time in Jordan, Luka has never fallen out of love with the Middle East. "I'm awed by the architecture, the way people dress, the sound of the call to prayer. In the Emirates, I can learn about Islamic culture free of the political baggage it has back home."
Planning to take full advantage of the global network to continue his world travels, Luka has his eye on Buenos Aires "because South America is the only place my father has never been," and London, where he plans to study the politics of modern Europe. "This might prove particularly useful, since Croatia is about to enter the EU."
When asked about his hopes for his own country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Luka pauses in silence before answering.
"As an ambassador, I would hope to increase international awareness of how bad the situation actually is in the region. At this point, because ethnic conflict runs so deep, improving it from within seems nearly impossible." Brightening up he adds, "To this day, though, I insist on responding to that most beautiful greeting—"Salaam aleykum"—with 'Wa aleykum as-saalam.'"