My Old-Friend Shoes

Umut Duygu Uzunel


Umut Duygu Ozunel was born in Turkey, and as a renowned eye surgeon, she has known moments of desperation. In Mali, she had to decide to save a child’s life, alone and unsupported. When her husband is arrested, she is forced to flee Turkey in her well-worn orthopedic shoes. Again alone, she summons up the courage to decide to save her own life.


Do you know what “desperation” means? Or have you ever felt desperate in your soul deeply? I felt this in two different ways. One was totally my desperation, and the other was someone else’s desperation, but it was also mine.  

Two years ago, the police came to our home in Turkey and arrested my husband. I knew the next turn was mine. I don’t know why I waited before doing anything. When the police called me, I realized I had to hide. If they had caught me, they would have arrested me.

I found a smuggler to help me cross the border of Turkey illegally. I knew it was so risky, but I was desperate. He took me from Istanbul to Edirne. From there, the plan was that I would walk through the forest at the border between Turkey and Greece. Then the smugglers saw me. My muscles are weak, and I can’t walk much. They had to change the plan.

They took me to a suburban area where there was a building that was still under construction. They found a place for me in this building. It was a silent place. The weather was extraordinarily cold. Or perhaps it was not so cold, but my soul was cold. I felt as if open-heart surgery was being performed on my heart, and I could feel every touch of it.

I was alone in this apartment for three long days. It felt like three years. There was nothing to do. Only my shoes were with me, like old friends. I had experienced many unforgettable memories with those shoes.

I am an eye surgeon. For five years, as a volunteer ophthalmologist, I travelled to Africa many times with my old-friend shoes because they are comfortable, light, and supportive. Three years ago, I travelled to Bamako, the capital of Mali in West Africa. It was my third visit supported by the charity known as Global Doctors. The charity has since been closed because of the hateful actions of the current government. 

During my visit, there was a festival called ‘Eid-al-adha’ in which Muslims sacrifice animals and share their meat with poor people. As a result, the clinic was quiet. Hunger was a bigger concern than coming to the clinic. Most people went to find meat for their families instead. But one girl came. She was just nine years old, and she needed cataract surgery. One of her eyes had been operated on with old technology by another doctor at the public hospital. That eye was irreversibly blind. The other had a white cataract. She could walk only with her father’s help.

We were using the latest technology in our clinic, but unfortunately, we didn’t have the general anesthesia equipment necessary to operate on children. Her father implored me to operate on her, but it was so risky. I felt at that time what desperation means. I told them that if she moved on the operation table, she could be irreversibly blind.

In tears, I decided to take the risk that I would never have taken in any other place in the world. During the surgery, I felt myself getting old. Perhaps I aged by five years. But when I saw her two days later, I knew it had been worth it. Her operation was perfect. She could walk without help. This was just one operation that changed someone’s life.

My escape story and the girl’s surgery were similar in two ways; the feelings and the risks of them. Also, my old-friend shoes witnessed both. With my old friend’s support, I overcame the obstacles that had seemed impassable.

I feel sorrow each day that I cannot do anything for humanity. I know many people are waiting for help in the world. My name is Umut, which means hope. I hope in my future life that I can continue to help people in my new home, Canada.                                                 

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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