My Black and White Sneakers
A young woman must leave her family, including her father, a hero in her life who always motivated her. She escapes her country with only her sister for company. She wears the sneakers that will accompany her as she becomes a refugee like so many Afghans before her.
I am Shekiba Ismaili, a young Afghan woman with great wishes and dreams. I was born in one of Afghanistan’s famous cities, Ghazni, which was chosen as the capital of Islamic culture for the Asian region for 2013. Ghazni boasts several important pre-Islamic and Islamic sites. The city contains hundreds of monuments, mosques, and graves of famous Islamic figures.
I was lucky to grow up there with my family beside me, especially my father who sacrificed himself for his children. Although my father can read, he can’t write correctly. However, he is a hero for his children. Once he said, “You should be someone for yourself. You should stand on your feet and be a unique personality for yourself. I don’t want you to have the same destiny that other girls in Afghanistan have.” I love his ideology, and I am proud of him.
When the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan, people grew afraid for their girls’ situation and destiny. My father accepted that we should come on this journey to continue our way. Many Afghans have had the experience of living as refugees in other countries, and now we would join them. It was very tough for my parents to accept that their daughter might live as a refugee for the rest of her life.
Our journey started when our coordinator informed us that we would move on Monday or Tuesday, so we should get ready. I thought about what I would need for this journey. I had had the experience of crossing the Torkham Border once, and I immediately decided to buy a pair of soft sneakers.
The Torkham Border isn’t a standard border like others. We would have to go at least twenty or thirty minutes on foot. The sidewalk of the border is like a tunnel, and the path isn’t asphalted or paved. It is full of dust, so everything becomes dirty there. When I left home, I took the new sneakers out of their package and wore them. My sneakers are black and white, and as soft as I wished. I felt comfortable on their soft soles. As I laced them, I readied myself for a long and tough journey—and for being a refugee.
We headed for Torkham at 4:30 p.m. and arrived there around five hours later. We had to wait the whole night. The next morning, we would move toward the border’s gate. I put my sneakers close beside me and said to them, “Tomorrow will be a dangerous and fateful day for me. You have to accompany me!” I didn’t sleep the whole night. I couldn’t stop thinking about everyone I had left behind.
The next morning, we moved on at 5:30, and we stood for three hours behind the gate, waiting for it to open. Since we had to stay on our feet for all that time, how important it was that our shoes were comfortable! I noticed that my sneakers had become grey and white. My body grew tired of standing for so long. I wished I could find one chair to sit down on, but there weren’t any, so we sometimes sat on the dusty road.
Finally, we crossed the border around noon. After our documents were processed, we arrived in Islamabad at 7:00 p.m., and we became refugees officially.
I love my sneakers, and until now I keep them with me. I washed them in the laundry. Once again, they became the bright black and white sneakers that I had bought before I left home. I hope they will accompany me on my next journey.
Shekiba Ismaili holds a B.A. in English Language and Literature from Kabul University. She taught English as a Foreign Language for three years in different centres in Afghanistan. She was about to begin her M.A. when the Taliban invaded Kabul.
Portrait: Dawna Rose with Shekiba Ismaili
Water based paint on panel
Size: 14” x 11”
“As to my process, I simply worked from photos provided. I wanted to do a straightforward attempt, without knowing too much. Shekiba provided a lot of photos but I was mostly interested in the ones closer to how she looks now, rather than when she was younger. They spoke to me of some experience and of her current life.
I was also pleased that I included her headscarf because after meeting her I found out that she feels more comfortable wearing it and somehow I intuitively got that. It was a pleasure to meet her in person and she is going to share her story with me including some Persian texts which I might replicate in paint on cardboard.”