Little Lejla

She was much smaller than her age indicated. Glancing again at her file to be sure I had the right girl, then back at her before calling out “Sta ima, bona?” Her little head bobbed up from the coloring book upon which she was focused. She jumped up and bounced over with her light up shoes glowing at her feet. “Wow! Those are pretty shoes, Lejla! My name is Ms. Rhonda.” She grinned sticking one glittery sneaker out for me to admire. I instantly became attached to her, this precious little one who had just arrived to Phoenix from a refugee facility in Germany. Originally from Sarajevo, a thriving metropolitan city of Bosnia Herzegovina- Lejla and her mother with her gorgeous olive skin fled Bosnia in the middle of the civil war. They crept on the hillsides with other refugees hiding among the trees in the cold until they found it safe enough to travel further. Her mother was Bosnian. Her father was Croatian. Their marriage, which had been celebrated several years earlier with a joyous ceremony and a feast, had later become filthy and despised. Sadly in the course of terror that overtook the city, Lejla’s father was taken and killed. Her uncles and older male cousins had been separated from the family and forced into camps. Fortunately they survived and were reunited in Germany before coming to Phoenix.

Lejla’s eyes resembled big, dark marbles…the kind that have a hint of shimmer in the center but only visible when luminated just so.  She had short dark hair that highlighted the large round eyes underneath. Her front teeth were silver due to lack of proper nutrition during the siege. Her laugh- a raucous phlegm filled laugh- tickled my funny bone and never failed to make me laugh too, not for its sweetness but because such a laugh could come from a tiny being. She, however, was sweet. Over the course of my visits, I gave her a nickname- miš mali. Little mouse. She was just that- cute and small, curious and observant, quiet…except for her laugh.

Starting over again in the United States is not easy, especially as a single parent; especially after seeing all they had seen, feeling all they had felt- the tremendous heartbreak and loss. Lejla was frightened by loud sounds. Miš mali. She slept in her mother’s bed at night because every time she heard a helicopter overhead she would tremble. Once at school a few of the other girls made fun of her speech, her boyish hair and her teeth to the point that Lejla cried. After school, the heartbroken little mouse cuddled up to her mother for consolation.

Even still, among her fears and adversity were bright moments of happiness. Happiness so dazzling you could see a shimmer in the darkest of marbles. I still remember when she learned to swim. Her thin arms swinging as she ran towards me blurting out all at once, “MsRhondaMsRhondaIcanswim!” It was a delight to share with her a love of reading. Her pale cheeks would practically glow with joy at learning a new word. I would bring her books, some of my childhood favorites or an occasional stuffed toy. In return I received a much sweeter gift- a big hug from her twiggy arms. 

In time, Lejla made friends. She learned English much faster than anyone else in the family and loved correcting her mother. She grew taller. The silver baby teeth fell and shiny pearls took their place.  Her mother found work as a maid; a lower position than she held in her country, but it was work. They found an apartment to maintain on their own. No longer did they need to live with other family members. Lejla made the honor roll in school, time and time again. Her mother later remarried and not to a Bosnian. She proclaimed early on that she would never marry a Bosnian, nor a Croat. No, she would marry an American. It wasn’t for papers as refugees are given green cards shortly after entry to the U.S. She wanted to marry an American because she now was American. She wanted no memory of the sorrow she left behind. She moved away from the Bosnian filled neighborhood and surrounded Lejla with American friends. She was determined to make a new life for her little mouse.

As she grew, Lejla learned to dance. Silky slippers replaced her sparkling sneakers. She would glide across the stage, her arms now strong, her legs muscular, her dark hair long and thick flowing with every whirl and leap…her eyes gleaming as bright as any of the stage lights. She had earned a new nickname. Not ready yet to let go of the little girl, I renamed her mala ptica. Little bird. ❤

flying-blackbird

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Welcome Home

Along with cooler mornings, this Thanksgiving has brought the reality of a dear uncle’s final days. He is a young man, not yet 60. Cancer has laid a stake in his body and isn’t backing down. His beautiful children and grandchildren made the journey to East Texas along with him. 

Tonight, after second helpings of dinner and dessert had been cleaned away… after a last round of card games and dominoes had wrapped up and victors declared, we gathered around our uncle, brother, and son seeking mercy and comfort through prayer.

To see my 90 year old grandmother hold the hand of her dying child and call upon God’s grace was heartwrenching. A poet once wrote, “How much fear can one woman carry? How many children can she stand to bury?” She has buried three children in her time on this earth. She will bury another. Her faith that brings a peace to her heart and fills her home with love and respect every Thanksgiving, is something for which I am thankful. Watching her children, grandchildren, and great children gather around her and her son in strength and admiration, is beautiful.  I am thankful for this.

Witnessing this uncle return to the home of his family, to be welcomed with open arms and so much love, is something for which I am thankful. Our family having the opportunity to say goodbye to this beloved member is something for which I am thankful. Having this family is something for which I am thankful. Having faith that this uncle is surrounded by mercy and love of a gracious God who will look upon his face and state, “Welcome home, my son”, is something for which I am thankful.

Life Lessons and Laces

This summer has been particularly challenging for my teenage daughter. She spent it working hard on studies to complete freshman year of high school. The most difficult for her was Algebra. Having a mom who is basically a mathematics idiot certainly did not help.

By misfortune that resulted in a positive, her dad was laid off from his job in DC, thus, he was able to spend the last month tutoring her. With advanced degrees in mathematics and physics, he literally is a rocket scientist. Who better to serve as her teacher than dear dad?

In the final countdown of preparing for her last exam, they crammed several chapters into hours of review yesterday. By this point, they had each had enough…enough of math, enough studying, and enough of each other. After fielding a few calls and texts from each of the exasperated duo of teacher and pupil, I was up to my limit as well and let them both know it in not the most gentle way.

Once home and able to observe the lesson firsthand, and all of their mutual frustration about how she was repeatedly skipping steps leading to the wrong solution, a thought struck me. I remembered teaching her to tie her shoes. She refused to wear the kind with Velcro straps or buckles and insisted on laces because she was “a big girl.”  We both repeatedly and with loving care taught her over and over again how to hold the laces in her stubby fingers using sing-songs and cute anecdotes to form a bow. This recalcitrant teenager had once been that precious, little, angel child. This  obstinate father, had once been the guy who spent hours teaching her the simplest of life’s tasks with joy.

Algebra was her new set of velcro-less shoes and without the shiny buckles. With all her strength of spirit, independence, appearance, intelligence, and confidence, we had forgotten in some ways, she is still a little person. Her fingers are less stubby and instead of stickers and marker smears, they are now adorned by metallic blue nail polish.

I reminded her dad that just as he did so gingerly with her five year-old version, he needed to tenderly teach the fifteen year-old version how to tie her laces using equations and polynomials.

Although the years have truly passed so quickly, we somehow lost sight of the  patience we once had with her. No doubt part of this is her constant reminder to us that she’s “a big girl.” I can only imagine that there will be many more of these tutoring lessons as life goes by. In the future, hopefully when she doesn’t tie the laces tight enough and they come untied, or when she ties them without thinking and they end up in knots, we will remember our roles. Then proceed with tolerance, love and probably a few concentrated breathing techniques until her laces form well tied bows.

Stronger Than

The ebb and flow of life’s many tides

May at times push you down or aside.

While often difficult to catch a breath,

Lessons can be learned when under the depths.


Although, easy to give in and simply float,

Would life, then, be anything worth taking note?

Let honesty be your eyes and love your truth,

This is what separates a man from his youth.


Remember, going along with the current, 

Is not always what is best for the spirit.

When you reach the shore, exhausted and tried,

Rejoice that you were stronger than the tide.