Promoting A Culture of Respect: The Shoe Project
By Christa Delmar
A Moment in Walmart
As I walked up to the cashier in the express line at Walmart, I was struck by how beautiful she was. Her smooth, milk chocolate skin was unlined by time but her eyes held a sadness that was undeniable. She greeted me with a friendly smile and rang through my few items. I couldn’t help asking, “Where are you from originally?” Her eyes lit up. “Ethiopia!” she replied. “How long have you been here?” She explained that she had been here just over a year. When I asked how she was enjoying Canada, she hesitated. “The people are wonderful here, very friendly,” she said. “But I miss my homeland. I miss the warmth. I miss the light. The sky is different here.” I understood completely. Having been born and raised in southern Africa for many years, I know the way the African sun warms the earth. The colours of the dirt, the grass, the sea are unlike any other place I have experienced. The light is different. The sky is different. I wondered what else this young woman missed and how she was surviving in our cold, often over-busy and fast-paced city where people habitually have more time for their cell phones than for each other. I wondered what her life had been like in Ethiopia and what (and who) she had had to leave behind to start a new life here.
Immigration is a tough road to walk. In Calgary, we are privileged to be home to people from all over the world. I often tell my grade three students, “You are so lucky! You live in a city where you can make friends from all over the world without leaving Calgary!” We take for granted that the world comes to us. We forget that many of the people who arrive here, whether by choice or because they have been forced to leave their home, arrive with few social connections, minimal language skills and a deep, aching hole in their hearts, filled with a longing for all things familiar … and home.
I recently attended The Shoe Project, a national writing and performance workshop for immigrant and refugee women. The Shoe Project was the brainchild of novelist Katherine Govier and its goal is to help immigrant women tell their stories and build English language skills through collaboration with Canadian writers and theatre professionals. Be sure to check out the “story archive” link to read these incredible immigration journey stories.
The Shoe Project
Thirteen women from eleven different countries told their immigration stories to an almost sold-out crowd, who sat enthralled in the auditorium of the new Central Library. The experience was enlightening and powerful. The majority of story presenters were highly educated. Some lived lives of great privilege and status in their homelands. Some were compelled to leave because war had devastated their once-peaceful lives. Some came for adventure and instead found hardship and heartache. But all told stories of perseverance, hard-work, courage, personal growth and change. As I absorbed their words, I was overwhelmed by a sense of connection to these women. Each of their journeys was so different and yet each was the same: a struggle to find a sense of self, value and identity in a land where everything reminded them that they were different, they were outsiders, they were not like everyone else. And yet these were also stories of hope and transformation. Not a single one of these women complained about their journeys. All ended with the positive message that the pain and heartache had been, and still are, worth it. As one speaker said,
“We don’t consider ourselves victims, but heroes, changing our destinies. We can build life here and help make this multi-cultural place a peaceful mosaic. I am becoming more and more Canadian, but at the same time, absolutely not less Syrian.”Aya from Syria
We take so many things for granted here in Canada: warm homes, running water, clean clothing, family, education, health, safety…. And yet, we complain about the weather. We complain about the government. We complain about our kids and what we believe we are entitled to. We rush through the line up at the grocery store and barely glance at the men and women who serve us. We don’t consider the fact that the person we are not making eye-contact with may be a highly-trained economist, engineer or university professor whose credentials are deemed “insufficient” and whose Canadian work experience is “inadequate”; who may be working two minimum wage jobs in an attempt to forge a place for themselves in a country that can be unforgiving to foreigners, especially those with limited English skills. We don’t consider that many are men and women who deserve to be respected, not just for the journeys they have made, but simply because they are fellow travelers on this journey of life who have a unique contribution to make to the fabric of our “peaceful mosaic”. We are so blessed to live in this country and to have the world delivered to our doorstep in the form of exceptional individuals who have chosen to make Canada their home. May we learn to honour these bold, courageous determined people and get to know their stories. We will be transformed because of them. And so will our country.