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.

Worthy of Friendship

In the last few days, the social media newsfeed has shown numerous posts reflecting upon creating our circles, and choosing friends wisely. It’s left me with this thought. We teach our children to choose their friends carefully, curating relationships based upon outward actions, reputation, behavior, and other attributes that we can see with the eye. This is understandable. We don’t wish ill will or difficulty to come to our little ones as they learn and grow. We don’t wish their reputations before being fully formed, to be tarnished. We don’t want them to be on the receiving end of cruelty or ridicule by other students, and honestly, by other parents. We teach them to select friends from whom they will benefit by matter of character. We use these same principles when selecting our own circle of friends and colleagues. It’s said, “choose your tribe”, “select those who will help you soar”, “be around those who benefit you and challenge you”. This has merit. Yet, I ask, upon what is this based? The majority of the time it is based solely on outward presentation. When first meeting someone we have no other knowledge from which to draw a conclusion. It seems to me, rather than draw a conclusion of any kind, rather than selecting myself who I want to associate with, rather than picking and choosing based upon reputation, the focus should be inward. Am I someone that others would want to be around? Am I someone that helps uplift others? Am I someone that has depth of character and compassion to be a good friend, a good human to any and all or only to those who fit a certain mold? It saddens me to read things about discerning the character of others based solely on reputation, especially so when the person is young. I knew a girl in high school who had a poor reputation. She was referred to by many as “trashy”. Yet, few knew the details of repeated abuse that stole her value. She truly had not even “slept around”, as it was said. All it took was one or two foul mouthed male students who took from her something and then by their actions made her daily life hell. Freshman year, my second school already, and being the new girl with few friends, I was fortunate to have made a friend in her. She was real. She was honest. She was smart. She was significantly more than anything ever repeated about her.

Sophomore year brought another change of schools and a student who was decidedly cruel to me was waiting there. I never understood why. She would call me names in Spanish that would be inappropriate to repeat. She whispered to other girls about me. She occasionally pushed too hard walking past me, but not hard enough to be considered hitting. There was no reason, of course, so on most days, I shrugged it off. Somehow, in my 16 year old jolly optimism, I decided to do the opposite of what I wanted to do. She did frighten me because of her tough persona. Yet, nearly every time I saw her, I said, “Hi Angelina,” as if she was my best friend or on lesser days, I would at least smile. She wouldn’t talk other than to ridicule me. Other times, on days when I couldn’t handle it, I did steer away. Flash forward to graduation night after all the diplomas were passed out. There before me in white cap and gown with black mascara streaks down her face stood Angelina. She looked much smaller that night than when encountered in the halls. She said she never understood why I was always nice to her even though she didn’t return the treatment. Then she thanked me. What?! This girl, this bossy mean girl was thanking me? She then briefly told me of a rough life, of not having much, of not even having one true friend. She apologized to me for the nearly three years of whispers and hallway jabs. There was nothing to apologize for and standing there on the field in 100+ degree heat of late spring Phoenix weather, we hugged a long, earnest hug. We never saw another again. We didn’t exchange numbers. Yet, to this day I am changed by that moment with that girl of bad reputation and mean outward behavior. I can only hope she was changed too. Rather than focus on those who we perceive as worthy of spending our time with and worthy of befriending, it seems to me, we should focus on being worthy ourselves by not giving attention to outward representation shown to us by others, but instead on the inward reality of ourselves. Show love, give love, be love. This is what changes lives. 💓

Cry, Little Sister

Mornings arrive and many nights pass,

Memories of her forever last.

 

Childhood laughter and tear streaked faces,

Echo in my thoughts and leave faint traces.

 

A familiar face in the children she bore,

Although her smoky voice will be heard no more. 

 

Long, wavy locks that floated as she danced

Hips swaying to music, lost in a trance.

 

She knew things some could never understand,

Sometimes a foe, eternally a friend.

 

Shared experiences led her to a painful journey,

A life cruelly stolen, a mother taken too early.

 

Each day I am gifted is truly a treasure.

This life brings to me fulfillment beyond measure.

 

Still sorrow waits in misty morn and sun-kissed mixture,

Love and joy do not lessen the loss of a sister. 

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.

An Un-forgone Conclusion

fortune-cookie

I consider myself fortunate. I say this not in a trite tone or the pat reply you so often hear that is spoken without due consideration.

At fifteen and a runaway, I had experienced violence, homelessness, poverty, seemingly endless meandering and searching for truth on the part of my parents, their drug use and poor decision-making that led to a life of constant moves, new schools, new towns, new states. We were uprooted faster than a turnip by Peter and his colony of cotton-tailed rabbits. More than once, we were even deprived of an education in a public school system that did not know what to do with homeless kids. We didn’t have a home, so there wasn’t an address under which to register us. Even now I shake my head at the ridiculousness of it all.

My future did not include drugs, drinking and despair. I’ve never battled depression or addiction. I was fortunate. At fifteen and a runaway, I could have been taken advantage of, raped, forced to live on the streets, become a teenage mother, a high school dropout or addicted to any number of substances. Instead I worked. I had an address. I graduated high school. I attended college. I built a life for myself. To be certain having so little for so long did have an affect upon me. I do not require a lot of things to feel happy. I am content with the few things I have. I have joy. I have peace. I have faith. It is in these that my happiness lies.

This good fortune was never lost on me. It is something I have known with acute awareness within a few weeks of leaving my family. It is something I give thanks for daily and will never take for granted. It is because I am so keenly aware of this fortune bestowed upon me that I have faith. I have faith in God. I have faith in humanity. Yes, even in these days…the faith I have in my fellow-man remains intact. I have faith in myself and my abilities. Love flows freely in my veins and my heart is still tender to the world around me. Yes, I am very fortunate.

I have seen firsthand people overcome insurmountable odds and pain to build the most exquisite existence. I have witnessed the transformation of addictions and the glory when addiction is fought and life reclaimed.  I have hugged a woman who had been tortured and raped by a gang of rebels only for her to smile with complete warmth and sincerity. I have seen men crippled by explosions during a war handed to them by cruel dictators, look upon the faces of their children with true pride and joy. The power of the human spirit to defiantly fight back, challenge defeat and love with grace is divinely beautiful.

I am fortunate because I realized that within me was the power to fight back. I realized from a young age that the life provided to me was not meant to be; that it must not be willfully claimed simply because it is what was.

It matters not what your experience has been heretofore. It matters not that you have hurt or caused others to hurt. It matters not the mistakes that you have made. It matters not who you were, who your family was or what riches you once had or lacked. Your life is not predestined for permanent defeat simply because you have had defeats. What was does not have to become what always is. Fortune will not find you unless you actively pursue it. Your value is not worthless simply because yesterday or all the yesterdays before today have not amounted to much. Defy your challenges. Make your future invaluable. ❤