Will I Change My Shoes Again?

Sanaa Al-Khannaq


Sanaa Al-Khannaq was born, grew up, studied, married and worked in Iraq. Her life changed many times after her country was invaded in 2003. The conditions there became so bad that she had to wear a non-academic outfit, including a pair of clogs, to get to work safely.  She decided to go to Malaysia, then moved to Jordan, then to Canada in 2017. Throughout her journey, she changed her shoes many times. Will she change her shoes again in Canada, too?


From time to time, I imagine that shoes can speak and tell me many stories, some of them about sadness or joy, and some of them about short or long migrations, some about fear. In Iraq, where I was born, grew up, studied, married and worked for many years, I had a collection of shoes in varying colours and styles. I wore some of them in the mornings when I went to work as a professor at the university. Other shoes were for the afternoon when I was with family and friends. 

Like millions of women in the world, my life was full of day-to-day responsibilities, raising children, working and happiness. But my life changed with the war in Iraq in 2003 and when the borders were no longer controlled. Then there was anarchy, destruction, killing, blood and tears. People with higher education were targeted for killing. I was one of these people.

So that I would not stick out, I stopped driving my car and began using public transportation. When I left my home, I did not know if I would come back. In Iraq, academic staff were required to wear business suits, but I no longer felt safe wearing my business shoes to and from work. Instead, I wore brown clogs with low heels like women wore when they went shopping. I carried my books in a shopping bag. That way, I would look like a non-academic woman. My commute could take two hours longer than usual because of explosions, checkpoints and route changes. I saw people’s faces full of fright, sadness and uncertainty.

When I got to work, I changed into my good shoes.

In Baghdad, where I lived, the situation got more and more dangerous. Women going to work or girls going to school could be kidnapped and sold in the main market. Their families could buy them back if they could afford the price. 

At that point, we decided as a family to go to Malaysia, where my son was studying. Our plan was to return to Iraq after a year or two. We left in the early morning without telling anybody. We left everything behind, all my shoes, including my clogs.

Almost all Malaysian ladies wear flat sandals everywhere. I kept wearing high heel shoes inside the university where I got a teaching position, but I changed to flat shoes for shopping. After nine years, my contract in Malaysia ended because they started to employ more Malaysians than foreigners. I was too afraid to go back to Iraq.

So, I moved to Jordan for a teaching job. I lived in the capital and travelled more than two hours each way for work. For that commute, I changed my shoes again. I wore boots during the winter, flats during my travelling and high heels during my work in the university. I left Jordan to come to Canada in 2017 when Jordan, like Malaysia, decided to hire more residents. 

Again I changed my shoes. In Canada, I got customized black shoes of simple design, which fixed a problem in my foot that had caused me pain for many years. 

But if I could, I would search for my clogs. I would tell them how my life has taken me to streets, cities, and countries I never imagined. I would say to them that all my academic accomplishments do not qualify me for the typical survival job expected of immigrants. I would tell them how I feel now: lonely and isolated. I miss my job and my lifestyle.  

But I will also tell my clogs that I do not want to ever change my customized shoes. They are one thing here that is a good fit for me.

SANAA was born and grew up in Baghdad, Iraq, where she earned a Ph.D. in Business Administration. She has worked in universities in Iraq, Malaysia and Jordan and has published a book and many articles on information technology. Since coming to Calgary, she has volunteered with CIWA, ISC, Making Changes Association and the Public Library. She got a Certificate of Volunteering Appreciation – Canadian House of Commons 2019 and The Volunteer of the Month June 2019 with Immigrant Services Calgary.

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