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

Advertisements

Shackled Grace

ngozi hands

Ngozi was a pretty girl with fine, delicate features and a dazzling smile. She was a happy girl and truly loved school. Her favorite subject was science and she read as much as she could at school because she did not have any books at home. Ngozi grew up in a Somali village until the age of nine. That was when the rebels came. They tore through, destroying the simple patch homes with fire, slaughtering innocence and driving out her family. Upon returning from school, Ngozi found her burning home but not her parents and siblings. Along with other schoolchildren and the few adults who dared come back to collect scattered belongings, she fled on foot away from all she had ever known.  She walked and walked, frightened and unsure of where her steps led her. Days later temporary lodging was found and a terrified Ngozi was given to a family who agreed that she may stay with them until she could be reunited with her family. As the days passed, she often remembered her mother, sister, classmates and missed going to school. She remained with her adoptive “family” and in exchange for their generosity, she was required to care for the younger children, do laundry and help with cooking. She was not permitted to attend school or read. To comfort herself, she made a small doll to look like her mother out of leaves and straw. At the age of 12, as payment towards her servitude, Ngozi was forced into prostitution. She was unclean and therefore forced to sleep outside of the hut ruled by her adoptive father. By 14, she was in a violent arranged marriage which later gave to her a daughter of her own.

Ngozi and I met when she was about 19; her chubby cheeked daughter just a toddler. They had arrived to the U.S. only two weeks before with her husband. Upon arrival, an apartment had been secured for them in the same community as the husband’s family. This is common practice in refugee resettlement as it typically ensures a more successful resettlement process. However for Ngozi any dream she had of a better life, away from the camps was stolen from her. She had been kicked out of the home by her husband and forced to fend for herself. We had never seen this happen in our work before, but there she stood, a small torn suitcase in one hand and the other wrapped in her daughter’s tiny fingers. As a refugee, the agency with which I worked was able to provide some basic support services to Ngozi. However the help was minimal and it was imperative that she find work. Unsure of just how to handle the situation, Ngozi was brought to my office by her caseworker to see if I could arrange for special assistance. She stood quietly with her head down, not looking up to greet my eyes. She was slight of frame and it was a struggle to support the bustling activity of her very active little one. Ngozi did speak some English and in an attempt to converse with her, I asked if I could give her daughter a toy and lollipop. The child began playing on the floor, freeing Ngozi’s tired arms. I had lunch delivered for us and the look on her face was quite comical when she held the chicken and vegetable spinach wrap sandwich and fruit smoothie. She had never eaten green bread and looked at it skeptically. However she was hungry and within minutes the lunch had been completely consumed. The next order of business was locating an apartment for her. Concerned for Ngozi’s safety, I was able to find a one room apartment in the same community where I lived. This would remove her completely from the Somali community but provide someone she knew close by in case of retaliation or other emergency.

We were separated in age by only a few years. Somehow this provided her some comfort and her story began to unfold. As she spoke, her long, graceful fingers would sweep the delicate features of her face in shame. I remember thinking how beautiful her hands were considering the struggle that bound them. She was bright, hopeful…even in the face of all she experienced. She dreamed of becoming a teacher. For three months she lived as my neighbor. A few times a week, often late at night, I would hear a slight tapping on my door. Ngozi would stand there, always with an apology for disturbing me, although it never was a disturbance. Her daughter had a severe diaper rash, or she was unsure how to work the oven or she needed help understanding forms for medical and food assistance. I often saw her sweeping…sweeping not only her apartment in absence of a vacuum cleaner, but sweeping the stoop of the entire row of apartments that surrounded hers. As she swept, she would hum. Upon seeing me she would wave her hand with a shining smile. It is really quite amazing…the power of the human spirit to overcome extreme adversity and still smile so genuinely.

Her public assistance ran out and after trying for a few months to find work and take care of her child without any support, sadly Ngozi fell back into the violence of her husband’s home. Overwhelmed, hungry, without food or a job to provide money, she felt there was no other way. Unfortunately there was nothing more the agency could provide to her. The last time I saw her, she still hoped that one day she would find her parents and siblings and return to school. She still hoped.

Ngozi’s story is common to many women and children around the globe and here in our very own communities.  I hope reading her story has made you think and want to take action. For more information and ways you can make a difference, go to: http://www.un.org/en/women/endviolence/index.shtml

The first step in building a society free from domestic abuse and violence is to take action rather than step back. Speak out against violence happening in your community.

A New Life

Neena was shivering from both pain and fear. She had never been away from home before; never without her mother. Yet here, some 12000 km from the woman who held her hand and wiped her tears for 20 years, she was. Due to the war in her country, she arrived to Houston just one week before. As she lay in the hospital bed, nurses poking and prodding in areas where she had rarely been touched, I held her hand and spoke to her about what would happen next and what the doctor would ask of her. Once the Pitocin has been administered, the waves of pain came upon her quickly, her body convulsing and crying out against the frame of the small birthing bed. She cried. She wanted her husband. She wanted her mother. When the time was right, the Anesthesiologist came in and helped her into position to receive the epidural. At sight of the needle, Neena refused the dose. With some cajoling and a lot of comforting after another contraction took over her body, she gave in and leaned against her pillow in an upright position. According to the nurse, she was ready. They would be back soon with the doctor. The epidural calmed Neena and I encouraged her to close her eyes and try to relax then went to the waiting room to speak to her husband. He only a kid himself, had a look of nausea and uneasiness that made me a little nervous. I couldn’t watch over him and be there for his bride. He sipped some juice and listened as I gave him an update. Neena was doing fine. She was resting and not in as much pain but she was scared and needed him. In his country the men do not stand bedside as their wives squeezed out bundles of joy wrapped in fluid and mucus. He shook his head defiantly. It wasn’t going to happen. His friends would laugh at him. I convinced him to come in and visit Neena to at least wish her well.

Within a few minutes of arriving in the room, the doctor came in and confirmed that Neena was in fact ready to begin. She was more worried about her husband seeing the wonders of the female body than pushing the baby out. He was a bit trapped and couldn’t really leave unless the doctor stepped aside so I asked him to just stay at the head of the bed and hold her hand. Just then Neena squeezed his hand causing his face to wince. As I held her hand and told her good job and that she was doing great, her young husband lay his hand on her forehead. There it was! The tenderness she needed in that moment caused her to smile and they looked so full of hope.

Quicker than I expected, their new little baby girl had welcomed the world with a loud cry and was laid on mommy’s stomach for her to marvel. Neena looked away in uncertainty. She hadn’t gone through proper prenatal care and had not been given books by adoring friends, colleagues and neighbors. She didn’t know what to expect while she was expecting. The baby- wrinkled, bloody, bright red from exhaustion looked foreign to her inexperienced eyes. Neena looked at me asking what was wrong with her baby. I told her she was perfect and a beautiful baby girl. The nurses took baby J away and brought her back looking much more like her young mother expected. As Neena cradled the sweet pink baby with a wave of black hair, she kissed the scrunched-up tiny forehead much like I’m sure her mother had done to her the first time she was cradled. ❤

baby-feet-black-white