Shoes Tell Their Owner’s Story

Umut Duygu Uzunel


Umut Duygu Uzunel’s orthopedic shoes support the skilled eye surgeon when she travels from her home in Turkey to Mali to join a team of doctors operating on people who would otherwise lose their sight. The Turkish government objects to the charitable group, and Umut must flee. In Canada, the shoes carry her into an uncertain future, but their owner has hope. After all, Umut means “hope.”


There is a forgotten world inside this real world. Let’s think about what the forgotten world is. Imagine—there are many small huts about 4 to 5 metres in size, and many people live in them. They have almost nothing, except one set of clothes, a plastic bottle to fill with water, and rarely, some kitchen stuff. Many people living in the forgotten world cannot find anything to eat. They don’t have health care in that world either.

But no, I cannot tell you about it. Africa cannot be told. It can only be lived. You must go there. I have been there. 

You see, I am a pair of shoes. I am orthopedic, specially designed and expensive. I am on the feet of my owner, who has muscular dystrophy; I give her support. She is an ophthalmologist, an eye surgeon. Her name is Umut, which means ‘hope.’ Although her husband and parents did not want her to travel to Africa because of her disability and the difficulties of living in Africa, Umut went there many times, and she forgot her disability when she was there.

As a pair of shoes, my mission was to help Umut move from her land of Turkey to and from the forgotten world in Africa. Unfortunately, an uncontrollable political wind that began in Turkey threw us off track to Canada. But that is another story. Today, I am going to tell you about the forgotten world.

Three years ago, on Dr. Umut’s fourth visit to Africa, I was on her feet. The team consisted of almost ten Africans. We travelled to Sikasso in Mali, 400 kilometres from the capital, Bamako. Travel on those roads was very hard. It took nearly eight hours; there were many holes and bumps. When we finally arrived, everything was ready for us to examine and operate on patients. The weather was unbearably hot, and there was very little water. We started to diagnose patients around 6 am to make the most of our time. The more patients we saw, the more lives we would change. 

One day, a woman of 40 years old came to the clinic with her son’s help. She had accidentally lost one of her eyes in her childhood, so just one eye had the capacity of sight. But with this good eye, she saw nothing because a white cataract had formed in that eye. As dangerous as this might be, Dr. Umut decided to operate on her.

The disappointing thing for me, as a pair of shoes, was that I could not go to the operating room. These interventions were extremely delicate. Dr. Umut operates without any shoes, using her bare feet to control the pedals of the microscope. So, I was left at the door.

Umut performed the operation. It was not easy. You can ask me how I know that. Because I saw, by looking beneath the door, my owner Umut was praying, praying that everything would go well. I prayed too. This complicated operation lasted seven long minutes. When she was done, Dr. Umut closed the patient’s eye with a cotton pad. The next day, the patient came to the clinic to be examined, and Dr.Umut opened her eye. The patient started to smile at us, but suddenly her smile turned to tears. Everybody in the examination room also began to cry with her. She was unbelievably surprised because she got her sight back at that moment. She had thought that she was never going to see again. Her life was totally changed by just one short operation.

This was just one of the trips to the forgotten world of Africa, but the government in Turkey objects to this charitable group. Umut was almost put in jail; her husband was put in jail. Umut had to escape quickly from the border of Turkey to Greece alone, leaving her kids and jailed husband behind. In Athens, she called a friend who said she should fly immediately to Pearson Airport in Canada and ask to be a refugee. Umut did not even know the meaning of that word, but she said at the airport, “I am a refugee.”

I am a pair of shoes living now in Canada with my owner for one and half years. Life is hard and strange. We face an uncertain future, but my owner has hope, like her name, Umut.

UMUT DUYGU UZUNEL was born in Ankara, Turkey in 1978. She graduated in Medicine in 2000, then went on to specialize in ophthalmology at Ege University. She has performed more than 10,000 eye surgeries since 2005 and published 30 national and international research papers. She came to Canada as a refugee in 2017. Her daughters followed 17 months later. Her husband is still in Turkey.

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