R was wearing a pair of brand-new pink and grey sneakers when she left her home in a Syrian refugee camp. The previous night, she had just returned from a trip to Lebanon when an explosion shook the building where she lived with her family. Tanks surrounded the camp, and that night, soldiers stormed into R’s house. In the morning, R and her sister fled for Lebanon, the first of many legs of a long journey to safety.
Separately, in Iran, Sara, a Kurdish journalist and women’s rights activist, had begun to get death threats. They came by phone, by text and by e-mail. But when a new threat suggested her place of residence had been identified, she knew she had to leave. Her husband bought her a bright pair of pinky-orange sneakers and it was in these that she took her first steps to freedom. (The Globe and Mail is withholding Sara’s and R’s real names for their safety and that of their families.)
Sonam Chozom, who is Tibetan, remembers most the shoes that she had to wear when she was sent to a Tibetan children’s village school: black rubber, standard issue, just like all the other students. These days, in Vancouver, where she immigrated – as did R and Sara – she prefers white Converse.
These women’s three paths finally converged in a classroom when they all enrolled in the same creative-writing workshop for refugees and immigrants. The Shoe Project, founded by novelist Katherine Govier, is a workshop that asks the women to tell their stories of arrival in Canada through a central metaphor – a pair of shoes. R, Chozom and Sara were among the 10 women who participated in the first Vancouver workshop.
“We were taking people who astonished us with the stories they had to tell,” says author Caroline Adderson, who mentored them for 10 weeks in the writing portion of the program. The women will eventually read their essays aloud at a public event.
“Though I’ve taught workshops for 25 years, never have I encountered a group whose stories have so moved me,” Adderson told me.
With the event approaching, she and three of the women gathered at a Palestinian restaurant in Vancouver to talk about their experiences and their essays.
THREE WOMEN, THREE STORIES
Over large platters of hummus, falafel, kibbeh and other Middle Eastern delicacies that reminded her of home, R, 30, talks about leaving her parents behind.
Her father predicted she and her sister would be back three days after they set out for Lebanon. His daughter was less hopeful. They made a bet, each predicting when the violence would be over and the sisters could safely return.
“We wrote the date on the wall,” R says, “thinking that the wall would last.”
That was July, 2012.
“I just got pictures,” R says now, taking her phone out of her bag. “Nothing is there. My dad owned the whole building and it’s all on the ground.”
Sara, 32, arrives at the restaurant with her husband and baby. In her essay, she reflected on the difficult decision to leave Iraq for the United States and the difficulty of sneaking over the border to Canada, through blackberry bushes and darkness.
“It’s just a road, a road between two big countries. It’s the first time we are doing something illegally, but we don’t have any choice. … Over there, Canada seems like a terrifying jungle. But my mind is still on the unforgettable night that I left my family,” she wrote.
Sara chose Canada primarily because of its proximity to the United States. She knew very little about this country previously. “I googled it,” she says.
Chozom, 23, who shyly selected a corner seat at the restaurant, ended up here thanks to the Tibetan Resettlement Project, which allows stateless Tibetans to immigrate to Canada. In her essay, she wrote about her shock at being left at a boarding school by her father at the age of 4.
R says she had always wanted to live in Canada.
“I would watch the news and they were giving gay rights, gay marriage and [other rights]. You can have a say and you’re heard,” R says. ”You could send an e-mail to the Prime Minister.”
LIFE IN CANADA
Their troubles did not magically disappear when they reached Canadian soil. The integration was often gruelling.
Extreme isolation can come with living in a new country without family, wrenched from the only life you knew: your home, your friends, your possession, your career, your language.
In the first class, they each told their story.
“A lot of tears, I remember,” says Adderson. Her lesson plan for that class went out the window. But over the following 10 weeks, they crafted their essays.
Sara drove with her husband and baby from Abbotsford for every session, never missing a single class. “Caroline helped us a lot, even emotionally, because all of us were very sad and I had very bad depression for a while, actually.”
She has a gentle smile even as she recounts the most devastating details of her story. “It is so hard. You can’t even imagine. Because it’s not just leaving. It’s a lot of things that you left – especially parents,” she says, twisting her hair and looking down at her hands.
The colourful runners that she escaped in became an important symbol, “kind of linked with my future, I think, because it’s bright,” she says. “They bring me to here and I can find a point to, how do you say, go back to my path.”
The Shoe Project was a balm for her, and the other women.
“The first day I got there and I saw all these awesome women and listening to their stories, it was magnificent,” says R.
“I was also depressed and I felt that we were all in the same spot somehow, like, stuck – and trying to break out of some sort of glass that’s in front of us. We needed to break out. Something was inside that needs to get out. Because we all had something that needs to go out to the light.”
R arrived at the restaurant in black lace-up boots, not her favourite footwear – work boots, she calls them.
And there is work: She is now employed at an immigration-services organization in the suburbs and lives in an apartment downtown. She wants to continue her work empowering women.
She says the Shoe Project gave her “a big, big push forward,” she says. “You have no idea,” she adds, turning to Adderson.
Chozom is at school, and plans to study nursing. She lives with roommates in Burnaby, B.C. They are all Tibetan, but speak English to each other at home. After the Shoe Project, she began writing in a journal again – in English. “It’s a good way to release your stress,” she says.
Sara, after being laid off from a menial job at a window factory, is a stay-at-home mother. She is eager to return to journalism, but first she feels she needs to work on her English. She feels stuck. In her new life, her experiences and accomplishments as an important voice who fought against rape, honour killing and female genital mutilation are completely unrecognized.
The Shoe Project was an enormous help. “I thought I was alone. It’s just me that has this story,” she says. When she heard the other women’s stories, she felt empowered. “It gives me hope that women can do something here, all of us,” she says. “It helps me to feel okay. It’s not just me. It’s lots of stories.”
And at the most basic level, it started her writing in English – a strong, moving story that ends with freedom in a peaceful land she once thought of as a jungle: British Columbia.
“These women have such potential; they have so much to offer this country,” says Adderson. “This was more than just a creative writing class. It’s more than that. It’s hopefully a step through the door,” she says. “Through this program, if Sara became a journalist again,” she continues – and the other women achieve their dreams – “then I feel I did my job. It wasn’t about 600 words to me.”
The Shoe Project: Walk in Their Shoes is at the Museum of Vancouver June 22 at 7 p.m.