Our
Stories

Since the first workshop in 2011, The Shoe Project participants have written over 250 stories and staged 30 performances.

Read about how their shoes brought them through their journey to Canada.

“The Shoe Project has created for me a fabulous platform to stand on and tell my story -- the immigrant story of which I can never have enough -- to the rest of Canada and by extension the world.”

- Teenaz Javat

Mojde Nikmanesh

Iran, Immodest Boots

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Mojde Nikmanesh

Iran, Immodest Boots

Looking into my closet, I asked my husband, "How cold is it outside?" It’s snowing, he replied. My hand went toward my only boots but I remembered: "I’m going to a feminist meeting." Living as an Iranian refugee in Turkey, I had difficulty fitting into our new political group. I thought, “If I wear these stylish attractive wedge heel boots, nobody will take me seriously.”

I tried to remember the last time I wore them. It was after the Green Movement in 2008. I wanted to visit my friend in Hamedan. I bought my first pair of boots because it was cold there. On the way, the excitement of wearing these new boots kept me looking at them all the time. I especially liked the big fur trim at the top with the strap around it.

By the time I got there, it was getting dark and snowing. As soon as I got off the bus, my body started shivering. I waited for a taxi outside the terminal. The darkness and the strangeness of the new city made me shake even more. All of a sudden, I saw a van in front of me with the shadows of two men in the front seat and a woman in the back. As it got closer I saw the police sign. The older policeman told me to sit in the car. Having no option to run or resist, I did. The female police officer wore a black veil covering most of her face except her eyes. She looked at me viciously and said, “Those boots are very provocative. You are a Muslim girl. Where is your chastity?” I looked at the narrow shafts that revealed the shape of my legs. I wanted to scream, "No I’m not a Muslim! Who the hell are you to tell me who I am?" But I thought to myself, calm down. Take a deep breath. You are already in trouble for protesting at the university. The police might have your name in the system.

Humiliated and vulnerable, I gave her my purse. I watched her going through my pencil case, my notebook, reading the first two pages, and finally my wallet. She brought out my ID card and registered my name for the crime of wearing “immodest boots”. Then she gave me a big lecture about Islamic dress codes and Islamic mores. She ended her speech by saying “Stop dressing like a whore. Next time you will be arrested. Leave the street before committing more sin!”

My husband’s voice broke my train of thought. “Hurry, we’re going to be late for the meeting.” We had started a new life in Turkey. In this new group of activists, I felt judged by my appearance, behaviour and even my choice of words. This time it was not about whether I followed Muslim values; it was about patriarchal values. Again, I was limited in choosing my lifestyle.

I looked at my boots.

They were not provocative at all! Actually, they were an imitation of Russian Cossack boots only with a feminine ruffle on the front. They were the boots of a warrior.

And I thought, these boots are me, hiding in a closet for years. Living in Iran, I didn’t have a chance to be myself. And even after coming all the way to Turkey with the promise of freedom, my real me was still sitting in the closet.

My hand went firmly toward my boots. I said out loud: “It is time to stand up and make your own choice. It is me and only me who should decide what shoes I stand in.”

Mojde Nikmanesh is a 27-year-old women's rights activist from Iran who dreams about an equal, peaceful world for all human beings.

Rasha Elendari

Syria, Shoes for the Revolution

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Rasha Elendari

Syria, Shoes for the Revolution

Today I am telling a story told to me by my older sister Manya who is now inside Syria running an organization to help internally displaced people escape the violence in their cities. Here it begins:

The middle class office workers in Damascus were a big part of the Syrian revolution: a fact Assad likes to keep hidden. When secretly planning their after-work demonstrations, these workers used a code! “Are you running today?” Manya asked when she called her friend Alice.

After work, Manya took off her work shoes, which are usually 3 or 4 inches high—she was just like most other Middle East women who loved their heels. Then she put on her running shoes. She met Alice who was still in her heels, which made Manya worry: “How could Alice run in these heels?” But she did not have time to tell her, as they were joining the march on a narrow street in the Old City. They were marching towards the famous square of Touma’s Gate, one of the seven remaining Roman gates surrounding the ancient city of Damascus.

Manya and Alice were among 150 youth peacefully protesting to demand an end to the bloodshed in other cities, and chanting: “We want a civil state and dignity….We want justice and freedom!”

They had not marched for more than a few steps before they were surprised by some Shabiha—what we call “Assad’s thugs”—who were everywhere undercover, lurking around, waiting. The Shabiha started attacking the protestors, using sticks and throwing whatever their hands could reach, even chairs and tables. They were overpowering, chanting “Long live Assad!” The protesters scattered in all directions. Some survived with no harm. Others were beaten and arrested.

Manya took off into a full-speed run. Images of dark cells and instruments of torture filled her head. She got lost, but she was thankful for the narrow tangled alleys the old city provides to freedom runners.

Her senses heightened, she could smell the scent of asmine everywhere. She could hear her heart throbbing and her running shoes clapping against the ancient basalt cobblestones.

Racing through those ancient streets and architecture, she thought about Damascus’s long history and the fascinating stories each brick could tell about the Assyrians, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans, and the Umayyads.

“Are they still following me?” she wondered. “What if they catch me and arrest me? What would they do to me? To my family?” She had heard stories of women who got tortured and raped in Assad’s prisons.

“Will I make it to my wedding next week? Good thing I wore my running shoes today,” Manya thought. She had told Alice to wear hers too, but Alice said she didn't have any. She hoped Alice was still behind her.

Then Manya stumbled across another protester at the end of the alley. He told her they should buy a box of peaches and pretend to be a couple on their way home from grocery shopping. In this way, they managed to outsmart the thugs and arrived at Bab Touma’s Square where they separated without even introducing themselves.

As originally planned, she made it to her friend’s car where they were all supposed to meet. Minutes later, while waiting for Alice, Manya saw the Shabiha escorting a group of protesters to hand them over to the security forces. Amid this chaos, she spotted Alice—barefoot, carrying her shoes, walking in pride and courage despite the insults and abuse. Manya could do nothing but watch in sadness, and thought to herself, “I wish they’d caught me instead of Alice. At least, I don’t have kids. I should have given her my running shoes.”

It was July 20th, 2011.

Alice was detained and then released after two weeks of being tortured and beaten by Assad’s security forces. This didn’t stop her from protesting. She got arrested again and was jailed for a longer period. Alice lost her job, but when her life and the life of her kids were threatened, she managed to escape to Germany where she is now a leading activist. Manya told me that Alice is still dreaming of her “Wonderland” in Syria.

The road to freedom is a long one… and we should all have our running shoes for the journey.

Rasha Elendari is a Syrian doing a PhD in Near Eastern archaeology at the University of Toronto.

Maya Kabbani

Syria, Qib Qbs

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Maya Kabbani

Syria, Qib Qbs

In the early morning, I was lazy and lay in bed. It was a chilly day in Toronto. But my room was filled with a lovely refreshing soap smell, a smell that took me back to a fall day in Damascus. I came back from school and opened the door to find my mom doing the seasonal cleaning. I could hear her voice: “Who’s that?”

 

“It’s me. Maya.”

 

“Take your shoes off outside. Be careful when you put your feet inside your slippers. Don’t put them on the floor. I just finished cleaning, and I don’t want to see any footprints!”

 

I did exactly what my mom said. While I was taking off my shoes, I noticed the vase behind the door was empty. She had taken the flowers to wash them.

 

I went through the guest’s washroom. The sink was sparkling. New towels matched the washroom colours of white and blue. The soap bottle was refilled. There were new bottles of perfume. She had put the washroom slippers on a new, white cloth to dry.

 

From the kitchen, I could see the balcony. The carpets were out in the sun. Mom believes sunlight is the best sanitizer ever. I could see the flowers dripping on the white, plastic table, making tiny lakes.

 

In the living room, everything was bright, neat, and smelling like love. Mom had taken the curtains to the laundry and removed all the frames and photos from the walls. She had washed the ceiling and walls—and even the TV.

Whenever I went with Mom to get cleaning stuff, I saw how much she cared. “This one cleans very nicely but doesn’t have a good smell,” she would say. “I’ll get this one for cleaning and also this other one that doesn’t clean so well but has a very nice smell.”

 

Mom is a practical person who wakes up early and starts organizing her tasks. I think if she had had a chance to go to school, she would have become a poet. She was a diligent student and very smart, but in grade ten, her father stopped her from going to school because Assad’s father banned the hijab in schools. That scared all the conservative people, so women lost! After that, she had two choices: to be a homemaker or a ‘gossip girl’. Mom chose the first, and in her free time, she read. Women like her competed to have the cleanest house, and my mom was the best.

 

She has very strict rules. Everyone wore four pairs of slippers in our house: one for the kitchen and hallway, another for bedrooms, one for the washroom and one for the balcony. Damascus is a city of people obsessed with cleaning, otherwise known as “OCD.” I was told many times, “Ohhh, you are from Damascus. Do you still have slippers for the washroom?” The answer is yes. These slippers are qib qbs. They are famous on TV shows, and there are even candies made to look like them. 

 

Moving to my own place in Toronto was difficult. At first, I spent all the time cleaning like my mom, and I worked six days a week. But then my father passed away. When I got the news, I started wiping the floor. Then I stopped. “What are you doing, Maya? Are you crazy? Your father passed away yesterday! You have to give yourself time for grieving.”

 

After a while, I started to think about my life. Other women here have activities. But I just cleaned and worked. I decided to release myself from the strict rules and start some activities. One time I told Mom on the phone, “Yesterday I didn’t have time to wash dishes.” She replied, “I’d never forgive you if anyone saw your place not clean.” Then I said, “Mom, don’t worry. I have your spirit here in my place.”

 

Although my Toronto apartment is small, I use three pairs of slippers. After my daydream of our home in Damascus on that chilly morning, I got out of bed and put on my slippers. My washroom smelled clean and refreshing. I have recreated my mom’s home here in Toronto but on my own terms. When Canadian people take off their shoes at my front door, I am happy.


Maya Kabbani comes from Syria. She moved to Canada in 2017. For her, moving to Canada was a turning point in her life.

Winnie Muchuba

Democratic Republic of Congo, Life Is a Miracle

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Winnie Muchuba

Democratic Republic of Congo, Life Is a Miracle

The soil in Africa, especially in my country—the Democratic Republic of Congo—is red, a deep, welcoming red. The heat of the dry season is felt not only in the air and on the thermometer, but also radiating back into the soles of your shoes.

In this case, the soil was also red with the blood of my husband who was assassinated by the militia. My husband had been to Europe and studied there. He had ideas about how to bring clean water and electricity to the villages. But when he was working at one of his wells, he was murdered. At his grave, I spoke about his ideas, so the soldiers began to watch me and follow me. I knew I was in danger.

One must wear shoes with a firm fit so the dirt doesn't climb up into your toes; it will anyway, but be careful. The soil is solid. It's a dirt that has been there for eons and will be around for centuries more.

Flip-flops are not recommended!

I wore these flip-flops only in the house. They have a light sole and some design cut into the leather. They are made by pygmies. We buy them in the market to help the pygmy tribes earn a living. They are the kind of shoes that you wear when you go to the market looking for something to buy for the house. Just small things like bread, sugar, milk, or some drinks.

On that night, I wore them so I would look as if I were going for a short walk, not going far at all.

But I was going far. I was running away.

A straw bag is best for taking to the market. Held in the hand, it's light, easy to carry and open to pack with fresh produce and other food. You don't mind if it gets dirty from fish, as you can wash out the woven grass basket with ease and let it air dry.

I brought only sugar in this mysterious bag. With sugar, I could feed my six  children while we were running. Just by dipping my finger in it, with a little water.

With my straw bag containing sugar, I left the house in my sandals. I looked as if I was just going to the market to buy some small things. The soldiers did not follow me. The weather changed suddenly. It started raining and my shoes became slippery inside with mud, soil, and water.

I went to hide in the church Eglise du Potier. In the early morning, I took a taxi to the border. I slept in a place near the border, and in the morning, my children joined me.

My stepbrother had driven them.
We travellers, with six children, fled. We fled into a world of falling—no walls, no floor. Panic for food. Fear for water.  I just remember the eyes of my children questioning everything deeply in silence, as if asking themselves, “What is the sense of life?”

The journey was long. All the night driving. Miles. Miles. Miles. We crossed the border into Rwanda and took a bus to Kigali. Then we took another bus to Kampala, Uganda—and then my children to Kenya.

Words. Wordless. Words spoken among the runaways were scattered like seeds, seeds of hope in this bitter season. Then came the last word—like a gunshot.

"Goodbye!"

Like a hammer. Like nails. No words, just flesh and blood poured out. The sounds of wailing clung like smoke to the mother. I left my children, unsafe and ran farther. One year later, they went into an orphanage. I did not know if I had done the right thing, to leave the children behind. I had to go ahead to save myself and give them a better future, later.

I could no longer walk, but I was carried by the spirits of my late mother—and my grandmother. She was a famous strong woman of our tribe, a queen without education who defended her village from invasion in 1964.

I came to Canada with the help of my friend Beth Richard from Manitoulin, Romero House in Toronto and Jubilee Fellowship Church. And now, three years later, my children have joined me. We left our country on March 3, 2012.

My shoes—precious vessels, witnesses. My shoes, crosses. They carried the weight of our desperate case and my seeking for a better place.

Winnie Muchuba is a student at Niagara College.

If you would like to read more of our stories, please contact us.

Let’s share more stories. Together.

The Shoe Project was launched in Toronto in 2011. Since then, we have added chapters in Vancouver, Calgary and Halifax, and are now a registered charity. We are committed to providing a truly national platform for the voices of immigrant and refugee women.