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Walking with Leila

Katie-Jay and I have a new baby, and her name is Leila. She is named after a refugee girl I met in 2007. Leila, the refugee, had the most beautiful smile, and I can guarantee that you would immediately fall in love with her the moment you meet her.

I first saw her briefly on a quick stop at her refugee camp home, Gaga, on our way to another camp. On a second visit a few days later, we got off of the car and asked a little boy, “Leila?” He smiled, pointed, and started walking. After just a few minutes of following the boy, he stops and and points, “Leila!” Here comes Leila walking fast, while at the same time trying to put on her dress, with her arm stuck not quite making it through the sleeve. I don’t believe Leila said a single word while I was with her, but her smile did not stop.

It was my third trip to the camps, and it’s fascinating how what might have seemed like an uneventful, “nothing special happening” visit to this one camp had a profound impact on me. It is still hard for me to really put my finger on it.

After finding Leila, we decided to walk around the camp. We did not have too much time, since we still had an hour and a half drive to the next town, and you cannot risk letting it get dark out in the dangerous desert roads. I offered Leila my hand, and she grabbed it immediately and we started walking. It was a hot afternoon, but I would keep looking down at Leila, and she would respond with a big smile. We were going to walk for a while, so I offered Leila a ride, with the universal “can I pick you up?” extension of the arms sign, and she did not hesitate to jump on. She was not wearing any sandals, and the sand was scorching hot, but I’m sure her feet were more than strong enough to take it, since she’d been barefoot from birth.

Leila’s beautiful dark eyes had so much behind them, telling more than what a child her age could ever tell. Her hair was orange, a sign of chronic malnutrition. In my arms, Leila felt so thin but at the same time so strong. As I walked around the camp carrying this precious little being, my commitment to her and her community became something that went from being strong to being unbreakable and for a lifetime.

I now have my own little Leia along with my other two beautiful children. I want the very best and would do anything for them. I often feel very guilty about leaving for extended periods of time and traveling in places that, at times, put me in relative danger. With KTJ and them, we talk a lot about the refugees and about human rights issues around the world and the importance of participation. I believe they understand.

I have not been able to see Leila again since 2007. She must be a big girl now. As I’m out here on my fourteenth trip to the camps, that moment in camp Gaga in which I carried that beautiful little orange-haired girl keeps me committed to staying idealistic and willing to work for it, so that refugee Leilas can have dreams become reality, just as I wish for my own little California Leila.


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Gabriel co-founded Stop Genocide Now in 2005, which gave birth to i-ACT in 2009. He became involved in the situation in Darfur out of a sense of personal responsibility. He believes the power of community and compassion, combined with personal empowerment, can bring about meaningful change.


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