Every Shoe Tells a Story by Katherine Govier
I help immigrant women tell their stories – through shoes. The Shoe Project was hatched over dinner with a sponsor, and Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator of The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto. We came up with a plan to exhibit stories and shoes that illuminate the voyage to Canada. I’ve since met two dozen brilliant women including a puppeteer from Russia, a journalist from Columbia, a dentist from Cuba.
Newcomers don’t share her backgrounds readily. Their stories are painful, some are harrowing, all are life-changing. I have learned to wait for the moment. It may take weeks of shared cups of tea, of silence, of listening. We make a visit to the bulging storage rooms of the Bata, where shoes from all over the globe are resting. Talking about shoes gives us a way in. Shoes are common ground. They speak of work and wishes. They are intimate, and they are political. There are the shoes she wore in transit, the shoes of parents and grandparents left behind, the shoes of a newborn baby in a new land.
Sayara Sadhri’s moment came during our second meeting. A modest, university-educated Afghan woman of 27, she came to Canada as a refugee. When Sayara discovered a pair of the beautiful embroidered knee-high boots worn by her countrywomen before Soviet and Taliban control, she vowed to write about her wish to help Afghan women restore their status.
Miliete Selemon’s moment took longer to arrive. For weeks she did not smile. No wonder: she had spent a decade in fear after her newspaper editor husband, Aaron Berhane, fled Eritrea. With her three children, she was finally smuggled out to the Sudan and, after a great deal of waiting, got visas for Canada. But asked for a shoe story, she quickly delivered. She brought us a plastic sandal called a shida, worn by the Eritrean independence fighters. We were aghast: men fought a war in this cheap, light shoe? Miliete explained that it was cool in the searing desert heat, and if the shoe was broken it could be mended with a lit match.
The women of The Shoe Project have learned to wait for the moment, too. When it comes, they fall silent and listen to each other’s stories with compassion and respect. They don’t necessarily want to be writers. But they need to do more than fill out forms. They need to be persuasive and to become part of the national conversation.
It is so moving to me to see the bonds they make, these women from Japan, Brazil, Nigeria, and Iran. They tell me that in Canada you have a chance to be reborn but not everyone – and not every shoe – makes the perilous journey. These are stories we need to hear.
Katherine Govier is the Director of The Shoe Project, hosted by The Bata Shoe Museum. Her most recent novel is The Printmaker’s Daughter.