In her shoes: Calgary's immigrant women tell their stories in The Shoe Project
Friday, January 20, 2017

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.

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 these stories? Can I make a novel out of this? I don’t know.”

The Shoe Project will be performed Wednesday, Jan. 25 at the Arts Commons’ Engineered Air Theatre. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased at the door (cash only), or reserve a ticket by emailing  rsvpshoeprojectcalgary@gmail.com. For people identifying themselves as refugees, admission is free.

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Source: The Calgary Herald / Eric Volmers

Photo: The cast gathers for a group photo during rehearsals of the Shoe Project, which is a theatrical production featuring immigrant women of Calgary. ls / Jim Wells/Postmedia