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Omanii Abdullah and Nanette Bustanoby show the value of mentors

April 02, 2012

Kheli R. Willetts

Two months ago, a reader emailed and asked me to write about a local woman who had a significant impact in his life as well as the lives of other children growing up in the 15th Ward, on the South Side of Syracuse.

I am always interested in learning about people who are positive influences in the lives of children. Even so, this email had a special resonance.

The request brought to mind the words of sixth century B.C. philosopher Lao Tzu: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step." In this case, the email suggested to me that one's journey through life often begins with a single act.

The email was from poet, playwright and entrepreneur Omanii Abdullah, of Syracuse. He was writing about Nanette Bustanoby, of Marietta, who worked at the Rescue Mission for more than 20 years, beginning in 1952.

Miss Bustanoby's single act was to care. That proved to be instrumental in shaping Abdullah’s world and how he lives his life today.

I was intrigued by his assertion. Why would a 6-foot-2 black man, who is Muslim, single out a petite Christian white woman as one of his greatest influences? How could they form a bond that has lasted more than 40 years?

So I contacted Abdullah and Miss Bustanoby. (I have to address her as Miss Bustanoby — even though she keeps asking me to call her by her first name. My upbringing and my respect for her 85-year journey is too great.) I also called two of Abdullah’s childhood friends, Larry Dowdell and Channie Myers. They share the same feelings about Miss Bustanoby.

Their stories begin in the 1960s, when as children Larry, Channie and young John Grace (Abdullah's name before he found his spiritual home in Islam) and their families went to the mission for Sunday school, church services, mid-week Bible study and camp, among other activities run by the mission and overseen by Miss Bustanoby. She provided a safe space for these young people who were living in a turbulent, politically charged and complicated era as cultural empowerment by African Americans was emerging.

Separately, Abdullah and Miss Bustanoby both recalled an incident to me. It offers insight into what makes their story so special, and it demonstrates the power that mentoring has in the lives of young people.

One day, Omanii came into the mission very upset because he was teased for being dark-skinned.

Omanii recalled, “Miss Bustanoby was very understanding. I could talk to her about things I couldn’t talk to my parents about.”

Miss Bustanoby, telling the same story, shared how she comforted him and began to explain “how some white people are not nice to black people because they don’t understand.” To Miss Bustanoby’s surprise, the child that had teased Omanii was not white but black, but she also knew it was important to offer comfort and support.

I believe this “single act” did something quite remarkable. Miss Bustanoby’s reaction showed Omanii that despite the political climate, there were white people who cared about and were aware of what was happening in the lives of black people, but it also it taught him and his friends that she saw them as black children and they were as important as everyone else.

Channie still remembers that about her mentor.

“Miss Bustanoby was a wonderful woman, great teacher, gentle and loving,” she said, later adding, “she could pull out the best in you, no matter your circumstances.”

Miss Bustanoby believes “it’s important to see race ... it matters.”

Omanii, Larry and Channie needed to be seen, to have their experiences recognized and validated. Miss Bustanoby did so by teaching black history in addition to scripture and the books of the Bible.

“Miss Bustanoby was a no-nonsense kind of person,” Larry reflected. “She taught us that if you are going to believe in something, you need to be very knowledgeable, read and study.”

In our conversations, all three said Miss Bustanoby’s lessons fortified them and helped them through challenging situations, even as they grew older. She created a love of culture, faith and humanitarianism that manifest in their lives today.

Kheli R. Willetts, executive director of the Community Folk Art Center, is a faculty member in the department of African American Studies at Syracuse University and an occasional columnist with The Post-Standard.

This piece was published March 31 in the Post-Standard

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