This Eight Year Old is Probably Smarter Than You

I met Layla on the first night I ventured alone in Istanbul. I've thought about her almost every day since. Something about the juxtaposition of her big, bewildered eyes, small frame and constantly slick mouth (although, sometimes too slick) drew me to her. She knew too much for her age and too little of her childhood. We connected.

Walking through Istiklal Street is a maze. I wasn't necessarily going anywhere, just wandering. I wanted to take in my surroundings, and my was there much to absorb. Lights streaming from one end of the street to the next, people rushing in all different directions, trolleys ringing their bells, vocal acts, food carts, hookah bars, and random men yelling out, "OOHHH CHOCOLATE, WHAT BEAUTIFUL CHOCOLATE" in the deepest Eastern accent imaginable. After some time, I came to see that I was the chocolate they were referring to. Corny? Yes. Flattering? Umm..have you seen Turkish men? Yeah....go Google! No, I was being serious. Open another tab. Don't be lazy! Fine, click here. You guys make me do everything!

Now that your eyes have been blessed, I can continue...

Walking down Istiklal, the food carts were endless. Corn stands and grilled hazelnut stands, ones that sold simit (don't know what that is? click here), others that sold pretzels, some that sold both, and even oyster stands. It was amazing. I decided to stop at the closest corn stand on my way home. The elderly man working reminded me of a grandfather (I’ve never had the opportunity to meet either of my grandfathers, so I tend to gravitate towards these types of figures). Eyes droopy and filled with experience, a warm smile and welcoming gaze, he warmed my heart. We chatted for a bit and even though I was on the other side of the world, he made me feel at home.

His gaze slowly lowered right before I felt a tug at my skirt. Peering down, I saw a little girl with dark features and a bright pink shirt, she held her hand out and spoke in Turkish. I stared back and told her I didn’t speak Turkish. Her intentions were clear, she was a beggar. Before I knew it, this little girl started to speak Arabic! She pursed her lips and said “ارجوك ساعد ني ” or “please, help me”. I was taken aback, but impressed. I stared back and said “I don’t speak Arabic”. I’m not sure why I lied, I understand Arabic just fine, and her dialect was perfect. The words almost flew out of my mouth before I realized what I had said. She knew though, this eight year old girl knew that I was lying. She looked me up and down, put her hand on her hips and said “well, do you have any money or not?” in English. I was floored. I wanted to know this mystery genius. How can such an intellectual being need to beg for money? She’s like freaking Einstein!

This is how I met Layla. This is the day Layla changed my life. This is why I will never forget Layla. As I walked through the streets of Istiklal with Layla, the hum of the crowds subdued as I listened to her life. She spoke of her past, of her uncertain future, of the streets that have become her new home. Layla is an eight year old Syrian refugee. The war displaced her and her family. Her father died in Syria, and she came to Turkey with her mother and siblings. She wouldn’t tell me where her siblings were (probably somewhere begging) and she told me very little of her mother other than she was ill and in the hospital. When I asked where she slept, she said anywhere. When I questioned where she lived, she said everywhere. I loved her immediately. Amidst the core of the storm, her positivity found a way to still shine.

We talked about her attitude, and she continued to claim she didn’t have one. I laughed and moved on. I asked about her dreams, she looked puzzled almost then looked at me with those brown eyes of hers and slowly turned away. I wanted to take her and run. Run with her to safety and shelter and to a home. I knew that wasn’t possible, but my heart wouldn’t stop hoping, wishing, yearning that I could. During our time together, Layla became quiet when I asked about certain things, I understood that she didn’t want to talk about them. Maybe the memory was too painful to relive, maybe the question too personal. We talked and we laughed and we made the most of our time regardless. What I remember most about our interaction is her smile. Although mature for her age, Layla is jaded, and it seemed that smiles came few and far between. When it came time to say goodbye, we hugged for a while, her unbathed skin holding on tightly to mine. I couldn’t help but feel tears swelling in my eyes as the reality that keeping contact was not an option slowly settled in. That sour truth brought about an overwhelming feeling of sorrow.

As we parted ways, I knew that I would never forget Layla, the eight year old girl genius. Her story changed my life, her attitude keeps me inspired and her smile still haunts my dreams at times. I believe that God places people in your life for a reason, and I feel that Layla was brought to me to teach me the lesson of positivity. Through a time in her young life, darker than any time I have ever been through, she managed to smile, laugh and remain positive about her situation. What right do I have to complain, when there are children living without homes, clean clothes, and sometimes even healthy or living parents? I don’t. I don’t have any right to complain, and neither do you. Everything happens for a reason, and I’m so blessed in all that I have and all that I don’t. Learn from Layla. Let her story be a lesson to you. If there is positivity in a displaced refugee, borderline orphan, there is definitely positivity in whatever situation you’re in.  Stay blessed my loves, and as aways…



Happy Wandering…