A few months ago, I was having a cocktail by myself while I waited for a table at Izakaya Minato. I’d walked across the street to Hardshore Distilling and was happily sitting all by my lonesome, reading a book and enjoying some good people watching. I do this regularly — I love eating alone, and I often read overtly feminist works while dining so as to discourage men from talking to me. 

This particular night, as I sat there reading Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object, a book guaranteed to dissuade even the wokest of dudes, I was approached by a young woman a decade or so younger than me. She was bubbly and beautiful. Apparently, something about me had made me a target of her cheery gaze, and she’d marched up with swaggering confidence and proceeded to plunk herself down with a twinkle in her eye. 

We joked and chatted and eventually worked our way around to the fact that she was from Belfast and had just moved to Portland. I mentioned that I’d just been in Belfast to see one of my incredible students, a member of my statewide policy board, and her face split into a grin. 

“Are you talking about Laila? That’s my sister! She is such an incredible young woman!”

I was indeed talking about Laila. Her sister, Noura, went on to wax eloquent about her, and soon another friend joined in. They were in awe of her confidence, her kindness, her resolve to change the world. It was incredible to listen to an older sister speak with such pride and reverence about the work Laila was doing in her community. 

We snapped a selfie to send to Laila, and parted ways as my table became available. I mused over the universe’s decision to put us together for such a brief moment, and then called Laila to laugh about it with her. I bought her a copy of Lindy West’s Shrill, thinking she’d like it, and handed it to her at our chatty lunch at the beginning of August, where she was greeted by nearly every person we met on our walk about town.

Laila passed away a few weeks ago after she was struck by a car while riding her bicycle in Belfast. Her death received quite a bit of coverage in the media, resulting in a constant state of awareness for everyone impacted by her accident. I cried often, wondering how far she’d gotten in the book. She’d been enjoying it, sending me pictures of favorite passages as she devoured West’s words with a kind of awe — she’d never read writing like this before. 

A vigil was held in Belfast while her family returned Laila’s remains to her country of birth, Kuwait. Hundreds of people gathered, and lanterns were sent into the sky in her memory. People shared stories of her recent, most visible work — she’d spoken at the March for Our Lives protest, a passionate speech about gun violence and love. Her friends from theater, Seeds of Peace, school, and youth activists from across the state gathered to remember the 15-year-old’s vibrancy and dedication to justice and equity.

Last year, I wrote a column about the ripple effects of visibility as an ally. I can think of no greater representation of that ideal than the gathering of hundreds of people to celebrate and mourn the life of a young woman who could have changed the world. Her work will live on in her friends, her mission will be taken up by those of us touched by the vibrancy of her beliefs. The ripple effects of her short life will ruffle waters far beyond our comprehension. 

Rest in power, Laila Al-Matrouk. May we do good work in your name.

Sultana Khan is a social justice advocate who works in youth development. Previously, she worked as a national security correspondent and cultural commentator for Gawker Media.

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