2021: The Shoe Project 10th Anniversary

On stages from Halifax, Charlottetown, Antigonish and St. John to Toronto, Calgary, Edmonton, Canmore and Vancouver, The Shoe Project's performers have sent their stories straight into the hearts of the Canadian public.

And there is more to come in 2021-2022 in Windsor, Brampton, Vancouver and Toronto.

Begun when Canada's best writers and actors chose to work with newcomers in 2011, today, The Shoe Project comes into its own as a national platform for immigrant and refugee women.

Participants' Voices

What does it mean for you to be part of The Shoe Project?

We asked The Shoe Project participants to write to us about their experience in The Project. Please read their reflections.  

 

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Antonina Natalukha

Participant

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Antonina Natalukha


Participant


What does it mean for you to be part of the Shoe Project?  We asked The Shoe Project alumnae to write to us about their experience in The Project. We received this video message from Antonina Natalukha. Her story shows her incredible resilience and power to overcome hardship.

 

Produced by Nurdjana de Rijcke

 

Antonina Natalukha moved to Canada 14 years ago from Ukraine. She is the mother of two children. She has a passion for belly dancing, which she teaches and performs at various venues.

 

Read the story that Antonina Natalukha wrote for The Shoe Project. Please follow the link to our interactive map. Select the country Ukraine in the dropdown menu. Click on a pin to read the story.

Clara Guerrero

Participant

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Clara Guerrero


Participant


What does it mean for you to be part of the Shoe Project?  We asked The Shoe Project alumnae to write to us about their experience in The Project. Read the reflections of Clara Guerrero.

 

"I'm happy that it happened in my life."

 

When I first started with The Shoe Project, I thought it would be about sharing my story and connecting with other immigrant women who would share theirs as well. I did not imagine that participating in this project would produce a big change in me.

It was not easy to write about myself and the arduous process of starting a life in a new country. 

I wanted to write about my salsa sandals, the ones that have been with me for an awfully long time. I took them with me to every country I have lived in. I walked, worked, and danced in them in Colombia, the United States, England, and the Dominican Republic. When I came to Canada, I brought them with me, of course. And they have been in my closet for 14 years. 

Occasionally, I look at them and can feel the warm tropical weather, the ocean breeze,  the dancing music, the bands playing, the friends, the smiles, the laughter, and the fashion. But then, some minutes later, I pack them and carefully put them back into the closet again. I understand that I lived plenty of good moments with them, in the same way that I had a good professional career before coming to Canada. However, I cannot live my present life attached to memories. It is better to let go, conquer my fears, accept the changes, and create wonderful new experiences. This is what The Shoe Project helped me realize.

Week after week, meeting with the other participants, I listened to their stories about their lives, their difficulties. I had amazing coaching from Helen Rolfe and Nan Hughes Poole, and wonderful encouragement from Noriko Ohsada. We could not have asked for more. I am more than happy that I am part of The Shoe Project. Thank you, Katherine Govier. Thank you, Canada.

 

Clara Guerrero was born in Bogotá, Colombia, the country of smooth coffee and exquisite flowers. While working for a worldwide corporation in Dominican Republic, she decided to come to Canada to study English. Her planned visit of five months turned into 14 years in the Bow Valley. Through the challenging experience of the immigration process, the feeling of transformation became meaningful to Clara. She now appreciates a simpler life in Canmore where she works in the retail industry.

 

Read the story that Clara Guerrero wrote for The Shoe Project. Please follow the link to our interactive map. Select the country Colombia in the dropdown menu. Click on a pin to read the story.

Elia Lopez

Participant

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Elia Lopez


Participant


What does it mean for you to be part of the Shoe Project?  We asked The Shoe Project alumnae to write to us about their experience in The Project. We received this video message from Elia López.

 

Produced by Nurdjana de Rijcke

 

Elia López was born and raised in Guadalajara, Mexico. Elia Lopez moved to Canada in her search for a more peaceful lifestyle. Little did she know what Canada had in store for her: a spiritual realization that would shape the second half of her life.

 

Read the story that Elia López wrote for The Shoe Project. Please follow the link to our interactive map. Select the country Mexico in the dropdown menu. Click on a pin to read the story.

Fabiola Menares

Participant

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Fabiola Menares


Participant


What does it mean for you to be part of the Shoe Project?  We asked The Shoe Project alumnae to write to us about their experience in The Project. Read the reflections of Fabiola Menares.

 

“The Shoe Project helped me to see my whole life as a graceful poem written on a puzzle where each event is represented by a piece.”

 

Fabiola Menares was born in Chile. She moved to Canada in 2014.

Filiz Dogan

Participant

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Filiz Dogan


Participant


What does it mean for you to be part of the Shoe Project?  We asked The Shoe Project alumnae to write to us about their experience in The Project. Read the reflections of Filiz Dogan.

 

"The Shoe Project made me feel like at home in Canada."

 

I felt like Yasmin Lash is expressing my thoughts. I lived through a very similar experience during and after my participation in The Shoe Project. I am still in touch with many participants. I invited my friends into this cycle, and I befriended people from this project. It was not just friendship and having fun together. We also helped each other find jobs.

The Shoe Project extended my (our) networking and made me (us) feel a little bit more like we were at home in this country. I am not shy any more about my accent. I am working in a job that depends heavily on language, communication and social skills. There have been lots of challenges and there still are, but I survived.

The Shoe Project came into my life when I had been feeling lonely and helpless. It provided a spark to illuminate my career path in my second language and culture.

I met with Ania Vesenny's team and participants in Halifax. I saw how Ania was dedicated to her job. And these women were amazing on the stage.

I want to express my gratitude to The Shoe Project and Katherine Govier.

 

Filiz Dogan is a psychologist from Turkey. She was a member of the first Shoe Project session in 2011 and a four-time alumna. She is now a member of the Board of Directors of the Project. Filiz has been working in the mental health field as a Registered Psychotherapist.

 

Read the story that Filiz Dogan wrote for The Shoe Project. Please follow the link to our interactive map. Select the country Turkey in the dropdown menu. Click on a pin to read the story.

Freweini Berhane

Participant

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Freweini Berhane


Participant


What does it mean for you to be part of the Shoe Project?  We asked The Shoe Project alumnae to write to us about their experience in The Project. Read the reflections of Freweini Berhane.

 

"I had the honour to be one of the first and youngest participants in the project."

 

The Shoe Project has had a deep and significant meaning and impact in my life. I had the honour to be one of the first and youngest participants in the project when it launched in 2011.

The project allowed me to meet strong, independent and courageous immigrant women who faced many obstacles in their journeys. The hardship of life that each of them faced made them extraordinary people. Despite what they had been through, they were kind, compassionate and optimistic. They had great hope and were working hard for a better future in Canada.

Since I was the youngest and most recent newcomer, I had so much to learn from the experiences of each one of them. Their stories, their strength and their commitment to overcome obstacles and create a better and sustainable life in Canada inspired me so much. They became my role models. Consequently, I had the opportunity to improve my writing and stage performance skills.

 

Freweini Berhane is from Eritrea. She fled the country at 16. In 2010, she arrived in Canada to reunite with her father. She graduated from the University of Toronto with a double major in Human Biology and Health Studies. She also completed a post-graduate certification program in Regulatory Affairs from Algonquin College. Freweini worked as a clinical research coordinator for a few years at a family medical centre and pursued further education in the medical field and public health.

 

Read the story that Freweini Berhane wrote for The Shoe Project. Please follow the link to our interactive map. Select the country Eritrea in the dropdown menu. Click on a pin to read the story.

Helen O'Neill

Participant

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Helen O'Neill


Participant


What does it mean for you to be part of the Shoe Project?  We asked The Shoe Project alumnae to write to us about their experience in The Project. Watch and read the reflections of Helen O'Neill.

 

Produced by Nurdjana de Rijcke

 

"I am proud of what I have done."

 

My name is Helen O’Neill. I was born and raised in the Philippines. I came to Canada in 1990, and I have been here in Bow Valley for over 30 years. I was nine years old when my father died. And I never thought in my life that I would become partly responsible for raising my six siblings. When I heard about The Shoe Project, it was great. I was so happy and interested to tell my story—especially where I came from. I was so honoured. It was an honour for me to tell my story, and I am so proud of what I am today.

 

Helen O’Neill moved to Canada 30 years ago. It was with The Shoe Project that she first shared the story about her father. It’s a beautiful story about resilience, overcoming hardship and coming into your own strength.

 

Read the story that Helen O'Neill wrote for The Shoe Project. Please follow the link to our interactive map. Select the country Philippines in the dropdown menu. Click on a pin to read the story.

Lucie Darshan

Participant

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Lucie Darshan


Participant


What does it mean for you to be part of the Shoe Project?  We asked The Shoe Project alumnae to write to us about their experience in The Project. Read the reflections of Lucie Darshan.

 

“The Shoe Project made me realize how incredibly connected we all are. It made me see the similarities in all our beautiful differences. We, humans, truly connect through stories, and in every single story shared by others, I could hear a little piece of my own self."

 

Lucie Darshan is from the Czech Republic. She moved to Canada in 2012.

Manisha Shrestha

Participant

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Manisha Shrestha


Participant


What does it mean for you to be part of the Shoe Project?  We asked The Shoe Project alumnae to write to us about their experience in The Project. We received this video message from Manisha Shrestha who resides currently in Kathmandu, Nepal. She lived in Canada from 2013 until 2017.

 

Produced by Nurdjana de Rijcke

 

Manisha Shrestha works as a volunteer coordinator for the Australian Volunteers Program in CECI Nepal. She holds a master’s degree in Geo-Informatics from the International Institute of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) in the Netherlands. Manisha came to Canada with her spouse and son in 2013. She lived in Canmore, Alberta for five years to support her husband in pursuing his Ph.D. She and her family returned permanently to Nepal in 2017. During her stay in Canmore, she volunteered and worked for many community development activities in the Bow Valley.

 

Read the story that Manisha Shrestha wrote for The Shoe Project. Please follow the link to our interactive map. Select the country Nepal in the dropdown menu. Click on a pin to read the story.

Michelle Garcia

Participant

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Michelle Garcia


Participant


What does it mean for you to be part of the Shoe Project?  We asked The Shoe Project alumnae to write to us about their experience in The Project. Read the reflections of Michelle Garcia.

 

"I overcame my fear of speaking publicly with my Shoe Project participation, especially in my case with a physical handicap."

 

 

Michelle Garcia is from the Philippines. She moved to Canada in 2012.

Monica Kim

Participant

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Monica Kim


Participant


What does it mean for you to be part of the Shoe Project?  We asked The Shoe Project alumnae to write to us about their experience in The Project. We received this video message from Monica Kim.

 

Produced by Nurdjana de Rijcke

 

Monica Kim immigrated to Canada from South Korea in 2016 to reunite with her husband, Steven. A professional graphic designer, Monica has actively engaged in her new community in Canmore, Alberta. She took ESL classes and volunteered with the Bow Valley Christmas Campaign. She designed a learner publication, “Meet the Locals”, for the Bow Valley Literacy Program. Before moving to Canada, Monica lived in the US, Sweden, and China.

 

Read the story that Monica wrote for The Shoe Project. Please follow the link to our interactive map. Select the country South Korea in the dropdown menu. Click on a pin to read the story.

Noriko Ohsada

Participant

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Noriko Ohsada


Participant


What does it mean for you to be part of the Shoe Project?  We asked The Shoe Project alumnae to write to us about their experience in The Project. We received this beautiful message from Noriko Ohsada.

 

Produced by Nurdjana de Rijcke
 
Noriko Ohsada immigrated from Japan in 1991. With her husband, Kaoru, she built a family in Alberta. She is a Japanese calligraphy artist and works part-time in the accounting field. Over the past few years, Noriko composed four personal stories with The Shoe Project. Now she is the Coordinator for The Shoe Project, Bow Valley in Canmore, Alberta. She is a mother of three. Meg, her eldest daughter with Down syndrome, is an active athlete and artist, and Noriko’s other two daughters are pursuing their education.

 

Read the story that Noriko Ohsada wrote for The Shoe Project. Please follow the link to our interactive map. Select the country Japan in the dropdown menu. Click on a pin to read the story.

Nurdjana de Rijcke

Participant

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Nurdjana de Rijcke


Participant


What does it mean for you to be part of the Shoe Project?  We asked The Shoe Project alumnae to write to us about their experience in The Project. Watch and read the reflections of Nurdjana de Rijcke.

 

 

"It was for me a way of closing certain chapters and leaving certain things behind me."

 

My name is Nurdjana. I’m from the Netherlands and I moved to Canada….10 years ago. That’s right, 10 years ago. That's my daughter in the background there.

And uh, yeah, what did The Shoe Project mean to me? I think one of the very powerful things about The Shoe Project was actually writing your story down, and by writing it down and then presenting it in front of an audience, it was for me a way of closing certain chapters and leaving certain things behind me. Also, to work on that story in a group of women that are so powerful, resilient and supportive—that was incredibly meaningful. I hope a lot of other immigrant women get to experience this and get to be part of The Shoe Project because it’s something truly meaningful and powerful.

 

Nurdjana De Rijcke moved to Canada 10 years ago to start a family. After a successful career as a journalist and a musician in the Netherlands, she settled into a slower pace of life in the Canadian Rockies. She has two young children and recently resumed her music career. She will release her first album in the spring.
 
Read the story that Nurdjana de Rijcke wrote for The Shoe Project. Please follow the link to our interactive map. Select the country Netherlands in the dropdown menu. Click on a pin to read the story.

Roxana Goerlitz

Participant

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Roxana Goerlitz


Participant


What does it mean for you to be part of the Shoe Project?  We asked The Shoe Project alumnae to write to us about their experience in The Project. Watch and read the reflections of Roxana Goerlitz.

 

 

“It was one of the best decisions that I have taken in my life.”

 

Have you heard this saying, "Life is a series of little steps along the way and if you add up these tiny little steps you take toward your goal?" Well, in my case, the first step was getting away from my shyness, from being bullied at school. I was afraid of speaking in public, giving my opinion. Basically, I did not want to be noticed.

Eventually, in 2015, I took a bigger step, I came to Canada by myself, met my husband, and started a new life.

When I saw the ad about "The Shoe Project", I had doubts about joining because of my fear of speaking in public. But I knew this experience could help me to overcome my fear. So I did it, and now I can confirm that it was a great decision, one of the best decisions I have taken in my life.

I met an amazing group of women and Canadian coaches that gave me such a big help. It was life-changing for me.
After this powerful experience, I can say that I feel more confident. It made me stronger, and I am happy to be part of The Shoe Project.

So, thank you The Shoe Project.

 

Roxana Goerlitz came to Canada from Chile in 2015. After four years, she participated in The Shoe Project. Roxana lives in Calgary where she recently finished the “Career Services for Foreign Trained Professionals” program of the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association. She has begun her practicum as an Administrative Assistant at Making Changes, an organization that helps empower women.
 
Read the story that Roxana Goerlitz wrote for The Shoe Project. Please follow the link to our interactive map. Select the country Chili in the dropdown menu. Click on a pin to read the story.

Saima Hussain

Participant

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Saima Hussain


Participant


What does it mean for you to be part of the Shoe Project? We asked The Shoe Project participants to write to us about their experience in The Project. This is a reminiscence we received from alumna Saima Hussain.

 

"Here I met the incredibly resilient and wise women."

 

The Shoe Project was about sisterhood. Sitting around one table, we, women from virtually every part of the globe, shared our personal stories over cups of tea.

We laughed, cried, and hugged. We bonded. It was a unique and enriching experience. We heard first-hand about living in a refugee camp in South Sudan, about lining up early in the morning to buy goods in Communist Poland, and about sexy red shoes in Turkey. We all walked a mile in each other’s shoes (pun intended!) and learned so much from one another. 

I will forever be in awe of the incredibly resilient and wise women I met. And I will carry their stories with me everywhere I go.

 
Saima Hussain was born in Karachi, Pakistan. She holds an MA in South Asian Studies from the University of Toronto and an MLIS from the University of Western Ontario. She is the author of “The Muslimah Who Fell to Earth: Personal Stories by Canadian Muslim Women” (2016) and “The Arab World Thought of It: Inventions, Innovations and Amazing Facts” (2013). Saima is a librarian in the public library system and continues her involvement in arts and community projects.
 
Read the story that Saima Hussain wrote for The Shoe Project. Please follow the link to our interactive map. Select the country Pakistan in the dropdown menu. Click on a pin to read the story.

 

In the photo: Saima Hussain (corner right) among the other participants of The Shoe Project in Toronto.

Yasmin Lash

Participant

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Yasmin Lash


Participant


Yasmin Lash sent this letter of appreciation to Katherine Govier, the novelist and founder of The Shoe Project. With Yasmin’s permission, we were gratefully publishing it on social media.

And then, we asked the Shoe Project alumnae, please write to us in response to the following question: What does it mean to you to be part of The Shoe Project? Now you can read all the answers on our website.

 

"It means that I could be myself"

 

My name is Yasmin Lash, and I was a participant in the Shoe Project in Halifax a couple of years ago. I realize it may be a little late now to write about my experience and thoughts on the process, but I hope that is ok.

I would like to start by saying thank you. It was a wonderful and meaningful experience. I am still in touch with some of the other participants. Before COVID restrictions, we even met a few times over coffee. Hopefully, we can continue doing that in the future.

As an immigrant, I feared that I would never get the chance to meet people outside of the circle of my culture. This project was the perfect opportunity to break that mold. I believe that writing in a group about our personal journeys emphasized that culture can be a bridge and not a barrier. It also reinforced my feelings that all immigrants share a similar unique subculture no matter where they come from. I want to add that Lorri Nielsen Glenn was wonderful in creating open and safe communication pathways for our group that enabled growth and learning.

Writing is a passion I’ve always had, and The Shoe Project was the perfect opportunity for me to write in English for the first time. With that said, writing can be intimidating sometimes, and that is especially true when trying to write in a second, third or fourth language. (I'm not certain if I should call English my third or my fourth language.)

As I joined The Shoe Project in my second year in Canada as an immigrant, I felt that the process of writing in English echoed in a lot of ways my struggles in using English on a daily basis. Language is a cultural tool. Learning a language is also connected to the culture and history of that specific language. But only when you’ve mastered the language are you able to express your own culture through it and bring yourself alive using it.

My English speaking level was high when I came to Canada. Technically, I could communicate efficiently. However, I did not feel that I could 'be myself' when I was using English. Words that I used did not feel familiar. I felt that I had lost the ability to be witty, use humour, cynicism, catch phrases and reply accordingly. This affected my ability to make true friendships and relationships. Any appreciation for what I could produce in writing or speaking didn't feel enough since I knew in my heart that it was not matching what I could do in my first or second language.

That is why working on a short story in English challenged me in all the right ways. I didn't have the 'luxury' to throw words away until I got my point clear. I had to be precise, to find and write the exact English words that expressed what existed in my head in another culture. Working with Ania Vesenny was hard, exciting, demanding and excellent in that way.

Ania was able to make me feel competent as a writer by challenging me to improve, find more fitting words and expressions. To treat each word as an entity of expression. In other words, to reclaim the written story as my own even though I wrote it in a 'foreign' language and thus claim English as mine to use. It was priceless.

I hope that the project will come back to Halifax again and offer a unique experience to many more. I know I will cherish it always.


Yasmin Lash grew up in a small Circassian community in Israel. She worked as an occupational therapist for 18 years before she immigrated to Canada in 2018 with her husband and four children. She is currently working at the Immigration Services Association of Nova Scotia (ISANS).


Read the story that Yasmin Lash wrote for The Shoe Project. Please follow the link to our interactive map. Select the country Israel in the dropdown menu. Click on a pin to read the story.

Media About Us

PEN Canada

PEN Canada

Sep. 11, 2018
PEN Canada

PEN Canada 

September 11, 2018

 

PEN Canada and The Shoe Project Present: Our Shoes, Our Streets

 
By Katherine Govier

 

I wanted to work with immigrant women who had the potential to lead, honing their writing skills in English. Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, wanted to create a small exhibition featuring, “the shoes that brought me to Canada”. We met at a dinner party. Our two ideas came together with private sponsor Heather Gardiner and The Shoe Project was born.

Every Thursday in the fall of 2011 I met with twelve women, ages 18 to 60, who had come to Toronto from the Ukraine, Columbia, China, Chechnya, and many places in between. Elizabeth opened the rich storage vaults of the Bata and spoke of the cultural significance of shoes. I brought tea, and various members brought their baking. We talked about writing and we talked about immigration. We laughed over expressions using shoes that are common in many languages: “waiting for the other shoe to drop” was one that puzzled almost everyone. “Filling someone’s shoes” and “walking a mile in his shoes” seems universal. Shoes are quite profound: intensely personal, they go farther than that, to speak of geography, weather, work, religion, and gender. Actually, there is very little that shoes DON’T speak to.

 

One woman wrote about being smuggled across the border from Eritrea in 40-degree heat in a pair of Nikes. Another brought the tiny Gerber baby shoes her 1-year-old daughter wore when they touched down at Pearson Airport from Pakistan.

 

The women all found that they had a shoe-inspired tale. Writing their stories in 800 words was one thing. Providing a 100-word caption for an item on display in a showcase was even harder. One woman wrote about being smuggled across the border from Eritrea in 40-degree heat in a pair of Nikes. Another described her terror donning ski boots to take the ultimate test, sliding on sticks down a hill in the Canadian Rockies. Another brought the tiny Gerber baby shoes her 1-year-old daughter wore when they touched down at Pearson Airport from Pakistan. She was a journalist: it was her husband, a garage mechanic, whose skills had given them entry, and he who was employed within six weeks of their arrival. She had to wait twelve years but now, we are all overjoyed to know, she works at CBC Radio.

By the end of eight weeks, each member had written a personal essay and provided the footwear to match. The ‘snapshot’ exhibition with shoes and writing opened at the Bata. It seemed like a good idea to have the women step up to a microphone and speak. That brought us to another, equal ambition: to have senior actors coach them in how to project, and speak in public, even act a little. Enter Leah Cherniak, director, mime, and performance coach.

A couple of years went by and we have worked with two dozen women. We moved to bigger spaces, a theatre among them. More women writers and theatre people worked with us: Alissa York, Marina Endicott, Caroline Adderson, and soon to begin, the poet Anne Simpson in Antigonish, Nova Scotia. The Syrian revolution began. Immigrants and refugees became big news. The #MeToo movement began and women’s stories were of greater interest than they had been. The Shoe Project attracted other writers, actors. We started Shoe Projects in Canmore Alberta, then Calgary, Halifax, Vancouver. 2017 and Canada’s 150th arrived. We applied for a grant and didn’t get it. We decided to keep doing this anyway.

The Shoe Project continues. We’ve worked with the Canadian Civil Liberties Association, and now we have teamed up with PEN Canada. All Shoe Project members are not writers, to begin with, but some are. Mostly they’re women, regular people, with stories of bravery, trauma, and even humour to tell that, without some help, will be lost between languages.

The Shoe Project is now national, Vancouver to Halifax, operating in 5 cities this fall.

This month “Our Shoes, Our Streets” runs at the Studio Theatre in North York, at Yonge and Sheppard. There will be ten performers from Turkey, China, Columbia, Nigeria, Nepal, Syria and more. There will be two performances on Sunday, September 23, at 1.30 and 4.30; the five-month anniversary of the van attack that occurred in the very same neighbourhood that senselessly killed 10 people, the majority women.

This is our first time venturing out of the heart of downtown and we’re doing it as a tribute. We’re talking shoes but also streets. Streets and sidewalks are where newcomers first connect with our country. They are how we love or hate our cities, and where we feel safe, accepted, or threatened. They are our home stretches, our dog walks, our routes home, and were there before chatrooms, treadmills, and subways.

Come and meet Umut—and her shoes—an ophthalmologist from Turkey who the regime decided was a terrorist because of her charitable work in Africa. Listen to Maya and see her snowboots; she recently arrived from Syria, an activist who hung on at home for years but ultimately fled when the bombs fell across the street. Hear Mujgan, 22, a photographer from Istanbul with a big Instagram following, tell her story about trying to find the mystery in Toronto streets in her Birkenstocks. Hear Wei Tao tell where her Lucky Bird shoes led her.

 

PEN Canada

The Globe and Mail

The Globe & Mail

Jun. 18, 2018
The Globe and Mail

The Globe and Mail 

June 18, 2018

 

In her shoes, after she got on her feet: In The Shoe Project workshops, women write about their immigration to Canada

 
By Marsha Lederman

 

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.

 

Sonam Chozom, The Shoe Project participant, 2018. By Jackie Dives/The Globe And Mail

 

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.”

 

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.

 

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.

 

Caroline Adderson, The Shoe Project writing mentor. By Jackie Dives/The Globe And Mail

 

“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.”

 

MOVING FORWARD

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 Globe and Mail

Vancouver Sun

Vancouver Sun

Jun. 17, 2018
Vancouver Sun

Vancouver Sun  

June 17, 2018

 

Immigrant and refugee women — and their shoes — tell moving stories

 

By Denise Ryan

 

Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, Performance Coach. Photo by Gerry Kahrmann/PNG

 

There is something about shoes — first shoes, school shoes, dancing shoes, running shoes. Our stilettos, our work boots, our worn out soles and broken heels. They walk with us, they protect us, they hold us and sometimes they carry us.

Our shoes are our stories. On Friday night, 12 women who have crossed borders, mountains, deserts and seas, who have left family and careers and whole countries behind them to start new lives in Canada, will share their stories with the public as part of The Shoe Project.

 

These childhood stories were so happy and as we progressed along to the story of migration, many of these migrations were forced, the tone completely changed.

 

The women have gathered at Mosaic Settlement Services for a final rehearsal with vocal coach Alison Matthews and performance coach Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg. There is a large plate of muffins baked by Friedenberg, but they are slow to go — tonight is the last night of Ramadan and some of the women are still fasting.

Emi Ruminkar, who moved to Canada in 2012, is first up at the rehearsal. She reads a story about a beloved pair of ripped Converse sneakers. The sneakers had led to a misunderstanding with her sister-in-law who didn’t understand that in Indonesia, the holes were considered cool; in Canada they reminded Ruminkar of how far she had come.

She blushes when the other women laugh and clap. Matthews carefully picks out a word for Ruminkar to hone in on at the performance: “Cool,” says Matthews, who is the head of voice and text coaching for Bard on the Beach. “Rest there a moment, let us hear it.”

The women have spent weeks contemplating not just shoes, but their lives, past and present, with local mentor and author Caroline Adderson.

The project, started by novelist Katherine Govier in Toronto in 2011 with the goal of mentoring immigrant and refugee women through storytelling and publication, and has slowly moved to different cities across Canada using local mentors in each city.

“I was thrilled to get involved,” said Adderson, who spent 12 years as an ESL teacher. “Many of these women already wrote in their native languages. It’s been an incredible honour to sit in a room with them and hear their stories.”

Adderson began by getting the women, who hail from countries as diverse as Syria, Eritrea, Sudan, Colombia, Tibet and Bangladesh, to recall childhood stories, folk tales and memories with vivid sensory detail.

“These childhood stories were so happy and as we progressed along to the story of migration, many of these migrations were forced, the tone completely changed,” said Adderson who worked with the women for 10 weeks.

“Though I’ve taught workshops for 25 years, never have I encountered any group whose stories so moved me,” said Adderson. “I am completely in awe.”

From the tale of fleeing through the desert at night in a favourite pair of plastic sandals, feet bleeding from the sand and thorns, to surrendering beloved feminine shoes for sturdy, protective boots, to tracing a trajectory from sorrow to happiness through a cherished pair of pink and grey Nikes, the stories are about more than just shoes.

Although the women come from diverse backgrounds, there is a feeling of camaraderie and joy in the room as they practise their readings.

When Nima Bolow, from Somalia, reads the story of leaving her beloved brother behind with a promise that they would meet again she pauses and the room fills with emotion. Finally Matthews asks if she needs to take a break. Bolow nods.

 

Alison Matthews, Voice and Drama Coach. Photo by Gerry Kahrmann/PNG

 

Matthews understands how vulnerable it is to share a deeply personal story. “Early on I told the women I wanted to help them celebrate their voices. One of the women said to me, that’s fine but you need to understand that hasn’t always been possible. It’s a good reminder that sound is still political and can still be loaded with a lot of things for people.”

For Matthews, working with non-actors, especially a group this diverse is a privilege. “I was so attracted to the opportunity to support women from different parts of the world, and for us in an affluent city like Vancouver to hear these stories and help these women make connections in the community.”

Introducing the women to the community is an important part of the project, said Matthews: and important part of the program is to identify leaders and help them connect in the broader community. Many of the women have left behind accomplished careers to begin again in Canada.

Govier said she wondered at first how to make the concept work, but the fit was perfect.

“It’s a very rich vein. They come with us, we leave them behind, we regret them, we run in them, we put them on our babies, we see our parents buried in them,” said Govier, in a phone interview from Toronto. Although the project is no longer associated with the Bata Shoe Museum, the shoe concept has carrie

The rehearsal at Mosaic ends with Rory Nassar, a Syrian-born Palestinian and human rights activist who weaves a story of humour and loss. It’s a courageous story that ends with a note of exuberance and hope.

Before wrapping up, Matthews looks to Bolow. “Do you want to try again?”

Bolow smiles. “I’m ready.”

 

Vancouver Sun

Calgary_Herald

Calgary Herald

Jan. 20, 2017
Calgary_Herald

Calgary Herald 

January 20, 2017

 

In her shoes: Calgary's immigrant women tell their stories in The Shoe Project

 

By Eric Volmers  

 

Photo by LS /Jim Wells/Postmedia

 

In practical terms, Ivy Caine’s “slippers” were probably not the best footwear when it came to working rice fields in the Philippines.

For one, while Caine calls them slippers, they were actually flip-flops. As such, they offered very little in the way of protection when she toiled in the fields as a child, helping her family eke out a meagre living by harvesting rice amid typhoons and floods.

Now living in Calgary, where she works as a customer services representative for the city, Caine still has those slippers. She says she will never throw them out.

“Every time I see the slippers, I flash back to all the memories of the achievements of my life,” says Caine. “I might have had some failures, but it reminds me of how strong I am for my family despite all the circumstances we went through. These slippers are always part of my life.”

Caine is one of ten Calgary women who will be sharing her story Wednesday at the Arts Commons’ Engineered Air Theatre. The Shoe Project was founded by former Calgarian and award-winning novelist Katherine Govier in Toronto six years ago. For the most part, it’s a way for women new to Canada to brush up on their writing and communication skills. Participants are asked to tell the story of how they came to Canada, putting focus on a pair of shoes that are central to or symbolic of their journey. For five weeks, the women meet and receive coaching as they draft memoirs.

 

It’s not an easy thing to contemplate: writing in your second or third language and especially to contemplate getting up in public and speaking the story. But for the ones who are ready for it, they love it.

 

But while the program has practical applications, it also results in heartwarming, heartbreaking and occasionally harrowing stories of survival, triumph, isolation and culture clash.

One of Caine’s earliest memories is of a typhoon that wiped out the family harvest when she was five years old. The family home — made of bamboo, with no electricity or clean water — was flooded and she was forced to evacuate with her parents until the waters receded.

She began working the rice fields after school at the age of 10. It was hard work and Caine says she knew from an early age that she wanted to escape and that education was the answer. At 16, she began working in a bakery while attending college on a full scholarship. She was working toward a bachelor of science degree and was taking courses in public administration. But as the eldest of four children, family responsibilities beckoned. She was forced to leave school and found work at an electronics factory in Thailand, helping finance her younger siblings’ education back home.

In 2009, she applied for a temporary work visa to work in Canada at the urging of a friend who had done the same. She knew little about the country but found work at the Booster Juice in Leduc, where she met her husband. They now live in Calgary.

“At a young age, all I ever dreamed about was to get out of poverty and to go to university and help my family to have a better life,” she says. “It was a very simple, basic dream for a person at a young age.”

While Caine says she is proud of the obstacles she overcame to come to Canada, she also says working with the other nine women has put her story in perspective. 

Aya Mhana is a musician who volunteered for the Syrian Arab Red Crescent working with children in a refugee camp but was forced to flee the country when her husband refused to join the Syrian army. A woman who goes by the name R.A. also left Syria, returned after leaving her abusive husband in Canada and fled again to escape the bloody civil war. Robab Saniee, a literary translator from Iran, tells the story of surviving typhoid fever, while Maria Gregorish, an historian and archaeologist, came to Canada after living through both Nicolae Ceausescu’s communist regime and the anti-communist revolution that followed in Romania.

 

Govier teamed with the Calgary Immigrant Women’s Association for this round of the Shoe Project, which has also had sessions in Toronto and Canmore in the past few years.

The author, who latest book is The Three Sisters Bar Hotel, founded the Shoe Project to help immigrant women improve their written and spoken English skills. But the program has become much more for those involved.

“Some people are not ready,” she says. “It’s not an easy thing to contemplate: writing in your second or third language and especially to contemplate getting up in public and speaking the story. So they have to be a certain type. But for the ones who are ready for it, they love it. They snap it up. I’m not crazy about the word empowering, but that’s what it is. They connect with the other women and feel proud of themselves for accomplishing this thing.”

But beyond the education and empowerment value of the program, The Shoe Project also results in an evening of inspired storytelling, Govier says.

“I love the stories,” she says. “Some of them are very sad. We laugh a lot, there are funny points and it’s great when they can share that. But some of them are pretty traumatic and scary. It’s amazing. It’s just so broadening to sit there and listen to them. I’m torn and tempted. One would love to write about this, but how do you do it? It’s their story. What we’re doing here is giving them the skills to tell their stories. Can I snatch 

 

Calgary Herald

Toronto Star

Toronto Star

Jun. 3, 2014
Toronto Star

Toronto Star

June 3, 2014

 

The Shoe Project lets listeners walk a mile in an immigrant’s shoes

 

By Nicholas Keung

 

Memories of growing up as a single child under China’s one-child policy. Why a little Syrian boy at a refugee camp wore a man’s shoes. The tale of a girl who heeded her mom’s advice and escaped “the thug capital of India.”

These personal memoirs are a labour of love by members of The Shoe Project, an ongoing writing workshop for immigrant women in Greater Toronto.

 

 

“It is a treasure trove these women have in terms of their stories. They bring to this country their cultural sophistication, education and warmth,” said Katherine Govier, who partners with the Bata Shoe Museum, which hosts the group’s weekly meetings.

“Shoes are a starting point, a doorway. It is something we all wear. We want to focus on people’s traditions, of what they left behind and their new dreams here.”

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the women of The Shoe Project will take over the stage of Toronto’s Arts & Letters Club to share their personal immigration stories through dramatic readings, music and dance. Part of the proceeds will benefit the Canadian Civil Liberties Association.

“Immigration has always been a key part of the nation-building story for Canada. CCLA is grateful to The Shoe Project for bringing these fascinating individual stories of courage and aspiration to us and to the stage for all to see,” said Sukanya Pillay, CCLA’s general counsel and executive director.

 

Shoes are a starting point, a doorway. It is something we all wear. We want to focus on people’s traditions, of what they left behind and their new dreams here.” Katherine Govier, Novelist, Founder of The Shoe Project.

 

Born in Chongqing and raised by her grandparents, member Jie Li said she never gave much thought to the one-child policy until she opened up to the group about her longing for siblings to share her often lonely life.

Suddenly, it dawned on Li how being an only child has shaped her life — and how she was “reborn” as an immigrant and new mother.

“When I came to Canada a couple of years ago, I felt envious when people proudly talked about their siblings,” Li, a record and information analyst, wrote in her short memoir, Reborn, for The Shoe Project.

“I feel I lack certain abilities because I was an only child. Without a sister or a brother, I had not developed my ability to speak, to listen or to debate . . . There were many speechless moments when I felt rejected. And I had nobody to share that feeling with.”

After Li finished sharing her writing — in a group of immigrant women from Afghanistan, India, Iran, Poland, South Africa, Turkey and Vietnam, among others — they all gave her a big hug and said to her: “We are now your sisters and we are all here.”

Govier, an award-winning Toronto writer, launched the Shoe Project in 2011 after a fan, Heather Gardiner, asked her to come up with a women’s writing program for which she would make a private donation. The project now relies on public donations and operates under the Mary A. Tidlund Foundation. The plan is to make the project national.

With her involvement in PEN Canada and teaching writing and journalism at Sheridan College, Govier has met many immigrant women. She wanted to design a program specifically for newcomers who wish to improve their writing in English.

Govier said participants range in age from 18 to the 60s, and come from diverse professional backgrounds, including teachers, bloggers, journalists, massage therapists and nurses.

In their weekly casual get-togethers, the women share their personal stories, listen and offer feedback. Editors, ESL instructors and voice/drama coaches help them with the art of writing and in presenting their stories.

Inspired by the idea of shoes, a woman wrote about her flamenco dancer shoes and her life in Colombia; another wrote about fleeing for safety from Eritrea to Sudan, in her Nike running shoes.

Hind Kabawat, a human rights activist from Damascus, wrote about the mystery of a little boy at the Atmah camp who was wearing a man’s shoes.

“Sami is from Bayda. The Syrian regime came to his village and killed 400 people in one day. His entire family died. He is the only one who survived,” Kabawat wrote in her story, “Two in One Shoe Story.”

“When rescued, he insisted on taking his father’s shoes with him. He won’t take them off. They are part of a home he can never have again.”

Participant Teenaz Javat said the women in the project immediately connected because they can relate to one another’s experiences.

“It’s like therapy to me, coming to the project,” said Javat, a business journalist from India who now writes for the CBC. “We laugh and we cry together. There is great camaraderie. We are best friends now.”

Javat tells the story of a trip she took with her mom to New Delhi more than two decades ago, to check out the Jawaharlal Nehru University campus that she desired to attend — a memory triggered by the news story of the gang rape and murder of a young woman who boarded a bus near the campus in 2012.

Calling Delhi the “thug capital of India” after their trip, Javat’s mother refused to let her attend the university. Javat wrote she would have worn chappals to classes, as most students do across India — handcrafted leather sandals that look good, feel comfortable, but do not help them escape from danger.

“The Shoe Project gives us the perfect platform to stand up and share our stories,” said Javat, a mother of two. “We don’t have to prove anything to anyone. We just listen to each other’s stories. It makes us really happy just telling our stories, our way.”

 

Toronto Star

 

Mentors' Reflections

Why have you taken on this work?

We asked The Shoe Project mentors and coaches to write to us about their experience in The Project. Please read their reflections.

 

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Alison Matthews

Voice and Drama Coach, Vancouver BC

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Alison Matthews


Voice and Drama Coach, Vancouver BC


We invited The Shoe Project mentors and coaches to respond to the following question: Why have you taken on this work?  This is Alison Matthews’s answer.

 

When Katherine Govier contacted me about coaching for the Vancouver chapter of The Shoe Project, I thought it sounded interesting. Much of my work is with actors, and I do like opportunities to work with different groups of people. I was also keen to have the chance to support women.

What I am discovering through this work is a kind of unfolding and revealing. Each time we meet, warm up our bodies and voices, practise speaking the stories aloud, and build a public performance, I understand a little more about what The Shoe Project is really doing. The women and their stories come into focus, and this is a radical act. Centring women’s voices, especially the voices of women from marginalized communities and less developed countries, is not the way our mainstream power structures were designed. I know so little of the struggles of women in other parts of the world. And they share them with sensitivity, passion and grace.

I love exploring the nuances of speaking in front of audiences. But the participants of The Shoe Project are also working very practically on language skills. They sign up to work on their skills in written and spoken English. It is professional development—job training. And it’s a way for them to tell their story and to connect with their new communities here in Canada. I am honoured to serve them—not only because of the sacrifices they’ve made and the hardships they’ve faced in coming here, but because their presence here is a gift to us. 

I do this work because the women who come to the project are remarkable. I do this work in hopes that we may listen and learn.

 

Alison Matthews is a voice specialist in the Drama Department at the University of Alberta. She is also a founding faculty member at the Arts Club Actor’s Intensive and Head of Coaching for the Bard on the Beach Shakespeare Festival, where she has coached since 2007. Alison is the voice instructor for the newly created Realwheels Acting Academy: a professional training program for artists in the disability community. With 30 years of professional acting experience, Alison has numerous film, television and theatre credits. She has been in demand as a professional voiceover artist for over 25 years.

 

Learn more about Alison Matthews

Alissa York

Writing Mentor, Toronto ON

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Alissa York


Writing Mentor, Toronto ON


We invited The Shoe Project mentors and coaches to respond to the following question: Why have you taken on this work?  This is Alissa York’s answer.

 

I took on this work because I was so impressed and moved by a Shoe Project performance I attended in Toronto. From the first workshop session, it was clear to me that I had lucked out. The women of The Shoe Project brought an impressive range of life experience and expertise to the table, and they had amazing stories to tell. I don’t know when I’ve been part of a group whose members listened so intently and compassionately to one another. It has been an honour and a profound pleasure to work with these women—to stand witness to their continuing evolution as writers, speakers and empowered human beings.

 

Alissa York is the author of the internationally acclaimed novels Mercy, Effigy (shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize), Fauna and The Naturalist (winner of the Canadian Author’s Association Fiction Award). Stories from her short fiction collection, Any Given Power, have won the Journey Prize and the Bronwen Wallace Award. Alissa has lived all over Canada and now makes her home in Toronto with her husband, artist Clive Holden. She teaches Creative Writing at the Humber School for Writers. Alissa was a Shoe Project writing mentor twice in 2016-2017.

Learn more about Alissa York 

 

Barb Howard

Writing Mentor, Calgary AB

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Barb Howard


Writing Mentor, Calgary AB


We invited The Shoe Project mentors and coaches to respond to the following question: Why have you taken on this work? This is Barb Howard’s answer.

 

The reason I took on the work of writing mentor in my first Shoe Project in 2017 is different from the reason I’ve taken on the work since then. When Katherine Govier asked me to help out the first time, I had not heard of The Shoe Project. I looked it up and liked the idea of meeting and working with newcomer women. I felt that I had sufficient experience in leading writing workshops to be of some use. At the time, I did not realize all the personal benefits that would accrue to me.

Every Shoe Project workshop has held many surprises for me—always including surprising stories, personalities, and emotional connections. But during that first workshop, I was in a constant state of surprise. I spent a lot of time studying world geography, wars and conflicts (past and current), and realized more than ever the importance of sharing personal stories. Most of the previous workshops I had led had been for fiction writing. The bare truth of the Shoe Stories was, and continues to be, both heart-wrenching and heart-warming.

 One of the members of that first group, Dusanka Reljic, knit me a pair of slippers. She had waited more than 20 years to tell her story and I was lucky enough to play a role in her storytelling process. I keep those slippers in a special place in my closet. They symbolize all the gifts, tangible and intangible, that I have received from participants in The Shoe Project.  

And so, I continue to take on the work, and receive the benefits, of The Shoe Project. But now in addition to meeting amazing women and having the privilege of helping them crystallize one of their many life stories, I receive an ongoing education, and sense of connectedness to my city and to the world. And, best of all, I have some new friends!

 

Barb Howard has written five books of fiction, including her latest: Happy Sands. She is a former lawyer, a former Author in Residence for the Calgary Public Library, and a recipient of the Canadian Authors’ Association Exporting Alberta Award and the Howard O’Hagan Award for Short Story. Barb is also past president of the Writers’ Guild of Alberta.

Learn more about Barb Howard

Caroline Adderson

Writing mentor, Vancouver BC

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Caroline Adderson


Writing mentor, Vancouver BC


We invited the Shoe Project mentors and coaches to respond to the following question: Why have you taken on this work?  This is Caroline Adderson’s answer.

 

When Katherine Govier invited me to be the Vancouver mentor, I jumped at the chance. I was an ESL teacher for 12 years, and I remembered how fulfilling it was to work with people from other parts of the world. The work turned out to be even more rewarding than I had expected. Working deeply with each woman to help craft her story filled me with awe. They have survived war, oppression and separation from loved ones. They’ve had to start again in a new language and culture. Every one of them is a hero to me, and their respect and caring for each other despite their differences is a model for a kinder world. 

 

Caroline Adderson is the author of four novels, two collections of short stories, as well as many books for young readers. Her work has received numerous award nominations including the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, two Commonwealth Writers’ Prizes, the Governor General’s Literary Award, the Rogers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and the Scotiabank Giller Prize long list. Winner of three BC Book Prizes and three CBC Literary Awards, Caroline was also the recipient of the 2006 Marian Engel Award for mid-career achievement.

Learn more about Caroline Adderson 

 

Conni Massing

Writing Mentor, Edmonton AB

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Conni Massing


Writing Mentor, Edmonton AB


We invited The Shoe Project mentors and coaches to respond to the following question: Why have you taken on this work? This is Conni Massing’s answer.

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I was thrilled to receive an invitation last year to participate in the first Edmonton iteration of The Shoe Project, working as a writing mentor to the women in the group. I took on this work because I believe in the healing power of storytelling to expand the compassionate understanding our world so desperately needs. I wanted to do everything in my power to help these women share their remarkable experiences.

I am in awe of the courage that it takes to start a new life in a different country, far away from all that is familiar. Having met and worked with the 12 women in our group, bearing witness to their strength, intelligence and humour, I am even more awestruck.

What an honour to be involved—and how deeply humbling. Congratulations to The Shoe Project for a decade of life-changing work.

 

Conni Massing is an award-winning writer working in theatre, television and film. Stage credits include Matara and The Invention of Romance as well as her widely produced adaptations of W.O. Mitchell’s Jake and the Kid and Bruce Allen Powe’s The Aberhart Summer. Conni has many publications to her credit, including six plays and a comic memoir, Roadtripping: On the Move with the Buffalo Gals. Her writing has been recognized by AMPIA, the Academy of Cinema and Television, the Betty Mitchell Awards, the Writers Guild of Alberta and the Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Awards.

Learn more about Conni Massing

Denise Clarke

Voice Coach, Calgary AB

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Denise Clarke


Voice Coach, Calgary AB


We invited The Shoe Project mentors and coaches to respond to the following question: Why have you taken on this work?  This is Denise Clarke’s answer. 

 

When answering the question of why I chose to take on the work of The Shoe Project, I need only tell you that it was one conversation with Katherine Govier that sealed the deal in my mind. The Shoe Project was born when Katherine and her sisters were searching for a way to honour their mother, a remarkable role model and educator of Canadian Lit.

My own mother was a war bride from London, England. She settled here in Calgary after the Second World War, and her stories of adapting to a new place, a new culture and a new way of living while raising four children had a big hold on my consciousness growing up. Although she made a wonderful life, it wasn't always easy and she suffered loneliness and a sense of always trying to fit in

When Katherine spoke about The Shoe Project's mission to reach new woman settlers, many coming from very difficult circumstances and facing similar cultural shifts but with the added challenge of language barriers, I could see how much more difficult it would have been for my mom had she not spoken English as a first language. She was often misunderstood just because of her strong accent, so I was sensitive to how new English speakers must feel as they navigate a new community while studying the language. It's bad enough for me trying to order a coffee in France and I have a smattering of French! I have tremendous respect for the courage it demands to re-settle in a new country, often with a new language or even just a strong accent. To be of service to women who come to Canada to begin new lives was something very meaningful to me and I was really delighted to join Katherine's team. 

That was nearly five years ago and to watch the program grow and to meet the fabulous gals that I have met in that time has added immeasurably to my own growth and my own understanding of the world. I believe in the Shoe Project because I believe in the power of these women bringing their stories to the page and the stage. I have seen them shine and glow sitting across from me in conversation or speaking in front of several hundred people. I celebrate the ten years of the Shoe Project with all of them and all of you reading, with the remarkable Shoe Project staff and coordinators and with the Govier sisters who got it all rolling!

 

Denise Clarke is an Associate Artist with One Yellow Rabbit and is the Director of the OYR Summer Lab Intensive. She has created or co-created several shows for OYR including The Erotic Irony of Old Glory, Touch, Breeder, So Low, Featherland, Sign Language, A Fabulous Disaster, Smash, Cut, Freeze and wag. In 2013, Denise was awarded an honorary doctorate from the University of Calgary and made a Member of the Order of Canada.  

 

 

Helen Rolfe

Writing Mentor, Canmore AB

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Helen Rolfe


Writing Mentor, Canmore AB


We invited The Shoe Project mentors and coaches to respond to the following question: Why have you taken on this work?  This is Helen Rolfe’s answer.

 

When asked why I joined as a writing mentor for The Shoe Project, the answer is quick to form: the work is deeply meaningful and has incredible purpose. It empowers women and shares cultures, which ultimately benefits everyone in a community.

I was also drawn to the writing format of the project—600 words and a pair of shoes as a metaphor to share the experience of coming to Canada. I love when there is a specific framework like this in which to tell a story. It makes the writing have to be exact, yet creative and compelling. What a challenge! And to accomplish this with English as a second language and in 10 weeks of writing classes makes the end result even more impressive. The writing process requires time, trust, patience and honesty, and more often than not, it feels easier to give up than continue. My job was to encourage each participant through this process while helping formulate and strengthen their words and keep a smile on their face, making their story as ready as possible to share with others. For me, this was a dream job. These women worked hard to fulfill their commitment to The Shoe Project, and to be a part of that was an honour.

Happy 10th anniversary!

 

Helen Rolfe is a writer and professional editor who won acclaim for her book Honouring High Places: The Mountain Life of Junko Tabei, the life story of the first woman to climb Mount Everest. Helen is also the author of Women Explorers: One Hundred Years of Courage and Audacity, a collection of portraits of pioneering women adventurers.

Learn more about Helen Rolfe

 

Katherine Govier

Founder, Board Chair of The Shoe Project, Toronto ON

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Katherine Govier


Founder, Board Chair of The Shoe Project, Toronto ON


We invited The Shoe Project mentors and coaches to respond to the following question: Why have you taken on this work?  This is Katherine Govier’s answer. 

 

People ask me why I have taken on this work—why when I’m busy, when I could be doing my own writing, when I could be holidaying in Mexico, when adult immigrants to Canada whose first language is, say, Tamil, are so difficult to coach as writers in English. 

Here is the reason: I love it. Meeting women aged 18, 30 or 65 from China and Croatia and Syria and Afghanistan and South Sudan and Brazil and Russia is huge fun. It’s travel without the security lineups. Instead of at Pearson Airport, I’m lining up for the butcher at 5 a.m. in Poland in the 1980s in minus twenty degrees Fahrenheit weather—and I’ve got Relaks boots on my feet. (Look it up.*)

I sometimes sit there around the table where we drink our tea and laugh and cry, and imagine large cartoonish bubbles over the heads of the 12 of us. Ancient alphabets—Persian, Russian, Chinese, Hindi—float around in these bubbles like arithmetic equations, as the women work to put their ideas into English. Except that it isn’t like arithmetic at all because there are no true equivalents between thoughts and feelings in one language and those in another. Little is exact. Everything is shaded, interpreted. 

Maybe that’s why shoes work so well. They alone seem solid. They look, sound, feel, operate, represent, decorate, and define us—all over the world.

I’ve met so many great women. And I’ve seen the Japanese and the Turkish members strike up friendships, the Syrian mother take the Afghan girl under her wing. 

Do you, as a writer, ever think that writing your own stuff is not enough? Even when you’ve got a new novel in the stores?

I do. By the way, please read it.

People think it is literacy, not literary.  

Can we consider a new thought: this distinction is a form of discrimination. It is like racism. The writing of a person who does not use the correct adverb or misses the past tense of a verb or chooses a generality because she doesn’t have the broad vocabulary of a native English speaker is deemed not publishable, not artistic, not worthy of the support of the literary establishment, the granting agencies, not worthy of the time spent to fix it by newspapers or radio. It is pushed downwind into “literacy”— which means “there are ESL issues”; it doesn’t count, and can’t be published. But with advice from peers around a workshop table, coaching, editing, and copyediting—which, frankly, native English speakers need too—that same story becomes vital, informative and urgently to the point. Great stories are lost between languages.

But not in The Shoe Project. 

 

* Please follow the link to our interactive map. Select the country Poland in the dropdown menu. Click on a pin to read the story.

Learn more about Katherine Govier

Leah Cherniak

Voice and Drama Coach, Toronto ON

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Leah Cherniak


Voice and Drama Coach, Toronto ON


We invited The Shoe Project mentors and coaches to respond to the following question: Why have you taken on this work?  This is Leah Cherniak’s answer.

 

I have worked in theatre all my adult life—as an actor, director, teacher and coach. Part of what I love about working in theatre is the necessary act of creating community. It happens so quickly in most rehearsal halls. There is an intimacy in making a play. You gather with others daily for long hours and weeks to discuss themes, ideas. You inhabit characters and play them with each other. You find understanding together, building something, making something and finally sharing it all with an audience. The rehearsal time is short and intense. The cohesion is powerful and so often joyful.  

I experience much of this intimacy while coaching the women in The Shoe Project.  There is great joy and excitement in working with each participant individually. We get to know each other rather quickly because of the questions, observations and conversations that a story provokes. Together we gain an understanding of how each story can find its way from the written page to a performance on a stage. We explore and practise how to tell their story, with the intention of standing in front of a live audience to communicate it effectively. And this offers me the privilege of getting to know each of the Shoe Project women through the search for clarity and authenticity in each story. It’s a delicate act, finding a comfortable and personal way to live on stage and tell one’s story. Often between the storyteller and the audience, an intimacy is also felt, a friendly and powerful exchange. I love watching this happen in a Shoe Project performance. 

I am grateful for my many years of coaching the women in The Shoe Project. Through their stories, I have been offered insights into a part of each of the extraordinary women who participate. And in the process of coaching, they have taught me so much about courage, determination, humour and hope.  

 

Learn more about Leah Cherniak

 

Momoye Sugiman

Writing Mentor, Toronto ON

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Momoye Sugiman


Writing Mentor, Toronto ON


We invited The Shoe Project mentors and coaches to respond to the following question: Why have you taken on this work? This is Momoye Sugiman’s answer.

 

Back in the summer of 2011, Katherine contacted me about her proposal for a women’s memoir writing workshop focusing on shoes as a launching point. What an exciting concept! When she asked me to recommend students for the first cohort, I knew exactly which women to approach. As an ESL teacher, I recognized the writing potential of countless students, many of whom were fairly quiet in class but expressed themselves with raw emotion and lucidity in their personal writing.

I was thrilled when Katherine invited me to sit in on the meetings at the Bata Shoe Museum. For the first four years, I attended them regularly. I remember wishing that I were an immigrant woman so that I could workshop my own unfinished stories in the warm intimacy of those Thursday evening sessions. The atmosphere of camaraderie and empathy that developed among the participants was exhilarating and inspiring. It was the kind of atmosphere that I used to cultivate in my ESL classroom before the emphasis on benchmarks and assessments—and before technology became an obsession. Over the years, it became harder to provide my students with opportunities to develop their creativity and bond with each other. Given my frustration with the growing bureaucracy of the education system, it was inevitable that I would be drawn to The Shoe Project.

Over this past decade, I’ve had a variety of roles—from secretary and recruiter to copy editor and ESL coach. I’ve also introduced Katherine to some wonderful women: Mariana of Brazil, Irena of Poland, Filiz of Turkey, Sayara of Afghanistan, Jie of China, Lianny of Cuba, Sheida of Iran—and various others. Having known these women when they were still struggling to establish themselves here, I can see how the Shoe Project experience has been profoundly transformative. I’ve been enthralled by the powerful narratives of all the participants.   

I am happy that this valuable initiative is still thriving despite the COVID cloud. We need The Shoe Project now more than ever. I cherish my association with it. Thank you, Katherine!

 

Momoye Sugiman was born and raised in Toronto. She is a veteran ESL teacher with a keen interest in anti-racist education and a passion for helping newcomers nurture their creativity and empower themselves. She holds a BA in English Literature, a Certificate in Teaching ESL and an MA in Immigration and Settlement Studies. Momoye has written various articles and edited two books featuring oral histories.

Nan Hughes Poole

Voice Coach, Canmore AB

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Nan Hughes Poole


Voice Coach, Canmore AB


Banff mezzo-soprano Nan Hughes Poole was the voice coach for The Shoe Project in Canmore that ran during the pandemic in 2021. For those who haven’t met Nan yet, she’s an incredibly warm person who immediately makes you feel at ease. She gives the participants all the tools they need to tell their stories in front of a big audience and in a language that is not their mother tongue.

In this video, Nan Hughes Poole tells us how this experience was for her.

 

Learn more about Nan Hughes Poole

 

 

Sarah Weatherwax

Voice Coach, Toronto ON

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Sarah Weatherwax


Voice Coach, Toronto ON


We invited The Shoe Project mentors and coaches to respond to the following question: Why have you taken on this work?  This is Sarah Weatherwax’s answer.

 

I wrote something at the beginning of the rehearsal process about the 10th Anniversary show, for this show: 'Listen with an open heart. Learn with an open mind. Let compassion guide your steps.' And last night, sitting on my front porch, I said to my spouse, 'These women carry the world's pain in their hearts, the world's horror stories in their memories.'

By writing their stories, they can release some of their pain. By speaking their stories, they can change the world.

 

Sarah Weatherwax, originally from the U.S., now works as an actor and voice teacher in Toronto, Ontario. As a private voice/audition and on-set acting coach, she works with both singers and actors. She has taught group classes at Humber College, at various studios—and online with actors around the world. In addition, Sarah has done voice work on numerous shows and has been involved with Workman Arts, a unique company devoted to fine arts training for people struggling with addiction and/or mental illness.

 

Learn more about Sarah Weatherwax

Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg

Performance and Voice Coach, Vancouver BC

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Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg


Performance and Voice Coach, Vancouver BC


We invited The Shoe Project mentors and coaches to respond to the following question: Why have you taken on this work?  This is Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg’s answer. 

 

I look forward to working with the women of The Shoe Project every year! The learning and inspiration we find in the rehearsal hall, or even on zoom, is profound. This learning goes both ways. I feel honoured to be part of the process of getting these important stories to the page and the stage, or the recording studio as was our process during COVID. 

As I’m an artist, my first language is movement, then voice. But I do not separate the voice from the moving body. The stories these women have lived are contained within their bodies. Through the outstanding mentorship of writer Caroline Adderson, these stories find their way to the page. Then along with my coaching partner Alison Mathews, it is my job to guide these words back into the body and then onto the stage.

As a settler of Eastern European, Ashkenazi Jewish, and British ancestry, I find myself wondering about the stories of my grandmothers and great grandmothers that I do not know, that were never told. In so much of history, the women are a footnote as the wife/mother/sister of the male protagonist, often without more than a first name—if that. Throughout time, so many women's stories have been lost to the privilege of the male perspective. The Shoe Project stops us all in our tracks to bear witness to the paths walked by these women, and thus our own ancestors. 

Every year I am privileged to meet a new group of courageous, inspiring writers with stories that need to be told and need to be witnessed. I am proud to serve this work. 

 

Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg, is an award-winning and innovative performer, choreographer, director, writer, and artistic director of Tara Cheyenne Performance. Working across disciplines in film, dance, theatre, and experimental performance, she is renowned as a trailblazer in interdisciplinary performance and as a mighty performer "who defies categorization on any level". In addition to  her own creations, Tara has collaborated with many theatre companies and artists,  including Bard on the Beach, The Arts Club, Boca De Lupo, Ruby Slippers, The Firehall Arts Centre, Vertigo Theatre (Calgary), and Silvia Gribaudi (Italy). Tara lives on the unceded Coast Salish territories with her partner, composer Marc Stewart and their child Jasper.

 

Learn more about Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg

 

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.