Before they leave Iran, Roya Chalaki and her husband buy practical black running shoes to wear in Canada. She wears them through long days and leaves them on as she rests, listening to CBC radio. She hears story after story from people open about their emotions and their weaknesses. The stories allow her to release her tears of grief and isolation and to tell her own story.
Before leaving Iran for Canada, my husband and I bought two pairs of high-quality black runners. We thought we would not have a car for the first few months, so we should have shoes for walking long distances.
I decided to wear my new runners to the airport. After a few hours, when we were about to board, my husband decided to wear his own new runners, but he could not find them. He looked at my feet and said, “You’re wearing my new shoes!” It was embarrassing and funny. There were only two sizes between my husband’s and mine. Being in a hurry to go to the airport and still wrapped in sadness because of losing my mother a few months before, I did not notice what I was wearing.
My mother had been diagnosed with cancer two years before. I couldn’t believe that this was happening to us again. When I was eight, my uncle’s sudden tragic death was a dramatic event that I couldn’t understand. It was followed by several other catastrophic deaths in our family. The eight-year-old child inside me was so frightened that I always imagined that I would leave my country so I wouldn’t have to live with all this death, especially so I wouldn’t see my parents’ deaths. I even started taking English classes. The day we got my mother’s pathology result was the same day I got my IELTS English test results, which were good enough to apply for Canada. My mother’s cancer was fatal, and the doctors gave her a maximum of a year to live.
When my mother died, I lost the only person who paid attention to every detail of my life. I wanted to talk about my feelings and about death, but I couldn’t find anyone to listen without judging or giving careless solutions. We arrived in Canada on October 16th, 2015. It was autumn, and all the leaves had fallen. I wore my black shoes as I settled in, filling out forms and attending workshops, and they were almost as comfortable as my husband’s.
When we were at home, my black runners and I would rest up for the next busy day, and I often listened to CBC Radio. I was surprised at the high ethical and cultural quality of the shows. I was intrigued by talks about ordinary people’s feelings on illness and death. In Iran, we usually don’t like to talk about our emotions in public. We’re often afraid of being judged because of our weaknesses. The CBC shows helped release my fears, but I needed to communicate my own story with others, too.
I also wore my black shoes to the Shoe Project workshop. It was difficult to write my story, and I postponed it until the final session. When I read it to the group, I went so fast and sounded so emotionless that nobody understood what I felt, and they said so. My story was about how people in my country didn’t understand me, but I realized that I was part of the problem. Like many Iranian women, I am well educated, yet I wish we had also been taught to express our emotions better and to have more empathy toward each other. I discovered something that day: changing the world starts by changing yourself. I know change is not easy, but since I arrived in Canada, that’s exactly what I’ve done.
These black runners are a symbol of the transformation I’ve undergone in Canada. Now I feel more comfortable with my own shoes, clothes, and feelings and self—even though my mother is gone. I will never forget her, but I will continue telling my own stories because I know I’m in a country where every person’s life, every person’s story, truly matters.
ROYA CHALAKI moved to Canada in 2016 from Iran. She lives with her husband and daughter in Calgary and works as a software engineer. She has a lifelong passion for writing and literature and is a three-time participant with The Shoe Project workshops. Now she enjoys working with The Shoe Project as a local coordinator to help more women share their story of arrival and integration in this beautiful country.