Would you be able to condense your life story into 600 words and narrate it in your second or third language to a room of strangers?
That’s what 12 female immigrants will do for the Shoe Project: Walk in Their Shoes — a writing workshop-turned-performance piece making its West Coast premiere at the Museum of Vancouver, June 22.
The women have been working with a local writing coach since February to put together stories of finding refuge here, on the condition that it’s themed around shoes.
“'The shoes I wore to Canada, the shoes I dreamed I’d wear when I came to Canada, the shoes I left behind, etc,'” project creator Katherine Govier explains.
The project began as a writing workshop seven years ago in Toronto at the Bata Shoe Museum, and it was the curator who suggested the prompt. Since inception, there have also been performances in Calgary, Canmore and Halifax.
Govier was inspired to help women coming to Canada with literary, language-focused backgrounds who were being held back by their level of English.
“I wanted the rest of Canada to know what they have to say, what they’re bringing with them,” says Govier, who recognized early on that vocal and performance training could also help these women.
Nima Bolow says incorporating shoes into her story about fleeing Somalia 10 years ago was akin to taking a personality test.
“Once we recognize the importance of shoes in our life, it taught me who I am as a person,” says Bolow. “I’ve learned how I am connected to my tradition and my shoes represented the choices I made, what my values and priorities are.”
Bolow wrote poetry back home, but says that starting her life from scratch in Canada left very little time and energy to pursue old hobbies and habits.
“All my focus went on how to integrate -- you reach this goal and you go to another one, goal to goal.”
Bolow says working with the other performers made her appreciative and thankful for her own experience, which she plans to continue writing about after the project.
"Sometimes you think you have a hard life or difficulties but then you see others and realize how lucky you were," Bolow says. "It’s amazing to see someone else from the other side of the world go through the same journey as you, on different roads and paths, but same challenges.”
The universal elements of 12 separate experiences is what stood out most to writing coach Caroline Adderson.
“Many of them come from contrasting cultures, but they’re like a group of sisters,” says Adderson of what she calls an exceptional group.
Govier says choosing the candidates is like choosing a basketball team.
We want people who can work together, who complement each other — young, old and different religions.”
Alison Matthews coached voice while Tara Cheyenne Friedenberg taught movement to performers from Syria,Tibet, Eritrea, Colombia, Somalia, Indonesia, Iraq, Bangledesh and El Salvador.
For Adderson, the program is about more than improving writing, performance and speaking skills.
“It’s also about identifying potential leaders, people who could benefit most from the program,” Adderson says, explaining that while they only interviewed 20 applicants for the Shoe Project, as many as 50 women could easily have qualified.
“One woman from Kurdistand, an ex-journalist, reported on women’s issues, honour killings, women’s rights, genital mutilation. She should be giving talks at schools of journalism.”
Bolow came to Canada with hopes of getting an education to become an immigration officer.
“One of her dreams was to get to Canada and get an education, and her and her sister risked their lives along the way,” Adderson says, adding that it took seven years for the pair to get their whole family here.
But after taking a year at Langara College, Bolow dropped out after realizing she was paying interest on her student loan.
“Knowing the principle of my religion, I couldn’t continue my education,” Bolow, a devout Muslim, said in an email. “If there is any way to solve this problem, it would be a great support for me and for all the students that have the same values!”
Both Govier and Adderson are hopeful that, by hearing Bolow and fellow performer’s stories, audience members will have a deeper understanding of the refugee experience and offer support.
“It removes the mask from the word immigrant and refugee. You meet real people and hear about their feelings, struggles, wishes, longing — they’re just trying to belong,” say Govier.
Early bird ticket sales ($14 each) end June 21, 5 p.m., but MOV members and those who self-identiy as Indigenous can get in for free (regular $19).
More information can be found on the events website.