Newcomer women trace journeys through footwear

Winnipeg welcomes The Shoe Project

The Shoe Project, running at the Manitoba Museum on March 11 and 12, features 10 newcomer women telling their personal stories using shoes. (Supplied photo)

Ten newcomer women living in Winnipeg will soon share their personal stories using high heels, sneakers and hiking boots as metaphors. The Shoe Project is coming to Winnipeg for the first time at the Manitoba Museum on March 11 and 12.

“The idea, for me, was kind of fascinating … to bring all these women with all these stories: different countries, different cultures, different religions all together,” Geraldine Gruszczyk, the local coordinator in Winnipeg, says.

After noticing newcomer women were sidelined because of a lack of English writing and speaking skills, Katherine Govier founded The Shoe Project over a decade ago in Toronto. Each participant uses a pair of shoes as a story prompt.

Participants are recruited through local newcomers’ associations and social media. Gruszczyk says the storytelling and rehearsal process is designed to support the women involved.

“These kinds of stories can trigger some trauma or unexpected things, you know? Because you are going back to those stories, and you never know,” she says. “In this case, from the steering committee to the writer, everyone was so careful about that.”

For 10 sessions, writing mentor Patlee Creary helped participants create ways of cultivating and telling their stories for print and performance.

“I’ll never look at shoes the same way again,” she says. “They are just this really powerful metaphor for going, coming, standing still, holding your ground, giving up your ground.”

Creary is also an immigrant and was born in Jamaica. She has a PhD in peace and conflict studies that focuses on lived-experience storytelling. She says the project centres the character of the immigrant experience and the identity recreation that can come with picking up an entire life in one place and starting over in another.

“The more we get to learn about our shared humanity … the more we actually learn about ourselves and some of the things we might not want to pay attention to,” she says, “but we do need to turn towards that so we can be a kinder, gentler culture.

“Overall culture. Provincial culture. Citywide culture. Regional culture. National culture at the end of the day. So it’s really about creating those opportunities for inclusiveness and humanization.”

Originally from Congo, participant Shakila Issa says she chose a golden shoe because she had a lot to tell about gold and her country. But through her work with Creary, she honed in on a different pair that holds special significance.

“The shoe that I picked is a shoe that I actually bought in Winnipeg but I sent it to Uganda to my son, who was there,” Issa says. “I left him there when he was only five months old, and then ... I came to Canada along with my daughter. So then when he came to Canada, he came back with those shoes.”

It took five years for Issa to reunite with her son due to a lengthy process during which she says she did not receive promised legal help.

“This one feels more important, and it was very sensitive, and every time I was telling the story, I would get emotional, so (Creary) thought maybe this one is the right story to tell,” Issa says. “And then I just happened to also find the shoe, so it was the perfect match.”

Sangeetha Nair worked as a journalist in Malaysia and says she was always interested in writing about her newcomer experience in Canada. For the project, Nair chose a pair of hiking boots she bought to prepare for winter weather in Winnipeg.

She says her passport was taken away when she first arrived in Canada as a refugee. “I (could) no longer visit my family,” Nair says. Instead, she decided to experience Canada and took a more lighthearted angle when crafting her Shoe Project story.

She wrote about the concerts she attended while wearing the hiking boots and about the time she and her mom saw Queen Elizabeth II in Winnipeg.

“I just thought it was so special, and it was a great memory that I wanted to write about and almost give life to because I lost my mom last year due to COVID, and this is kind of my way of making her memory last forever in my little way,” Nair says.

Participants work with Rachel E Smith, a performance coach with a theatre background, to prepare for the stage. Smith reviews techniques to help with public-speaking nerves.

“Sharing a personal story can be hard for anyone. So ... to me, the most important thing is not about creating some sort of grand song and dance for the stage,” she said. “It’s more about hearing these women’s stories that are so powerful and for them to feel comfortable in being able to tell those stories.”

Yuliia Kovalenko says she is grateful to be part of the project and that the experience has given her confidence in all aspects of her life. She bought her sneakers in Ukraine before the war and didn’t take her first steps in them until arriving in Canada.

“It’s very hard to explain, but I really love how my story connected with shoes, because I compare my feelings in Canada with how I feel in my boots. Because, you know, when you first wear the boots, it first (feels) like ‘wow, I love (these) shoes. It is so beautiful,’” Kovalenko says.

“But when time goes” on, she explains, “when you walk around in them,” your feet can hurt and start bleeding. “It’s very hard. So I compare my feelings (to) my emotions, living in (a) new country with this pair of shoes.”

The Shoe Project performances are on Saturday, March 11, at 7 p.m. and Sunday, March 12 at 2 p.m. in the Manitoba Museum auditorium. Tickets are $10 and are available on the Manitoba Museum website. After 12 years of activity throughout Canada, The Shoe Project will end its regular operations on May 31.

Published in Volume 77, Number 21 of The Uniter (March 9, 2023)

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