Puma Running Shoes
The father of Paola Gomez’s baby gives her a pair of running shoes. He knows she will need them – she is in danger in Colombia and must run. When she and her baby arrive in Buffalo, her gateway to Canada, she is depleted. But her experience as a lawyer in Colombia is invaluable to the others waiting to cross the border. When her turn comes, she is ready.
The memory of the day I entered Canada is one I treasure. Crossing the Peace Bridge in a taxi with my son in my arms, feeling relieved. Answering an immigration officer’s questions, feeling depleted. Arriving in a beautiful room painted in light blue. Seeing a bed and a crib covered in white linens. Feeling hopeful. That room would be my home for the next 14 months, a place where I would learn to be free again.
I took off my shoes: those white Puma, Mostro Perf leather running shoes. I had been on the run for nearly two years after denouncing police involvement in “clean-up operations” in Colombia, a practice where far-right-wing people, with the support of the police, kill people dealing with addictions and living on the streets. I had never owned a pair of running shoes before. These were a present from my kid’s father just after I had given birth. We knew I would be leaving. The Puma shoes would serve my purpose.
A few months after baby Matthew arrived, we undertook the journey. I was travelling with only a suitcase full of diapers and baby food, the clothing we wore and my dreams of freedom. My little companion and I went from New York (where I had lived since escaping Colombia) to Buffalo, at the border with Canada, the gate to our new life.
I arrived at Vive La Casa, a shelter for refugee claimants. The place was crowded with people from all over the world, with the same hope and same uncertainty. I was told I had to do a chore in order to earn a ticket so I could get meals. I did it to earn dinner.
The next day I was given a new set of chores. This time, I would have to leave my baby out of my sight. I went back to the office and asked for a chore that would allow me to look after my baby. The administrator said, “No. Leave your child with anyone waiting to be seen by a counsellor.” When I refused, she replied, “No chore, no ticket.” I felt humiliated.
The sadness of the few years of running, the vulnerability that comes with being a new mom and the fragility of my baby all hit me at once. I did not have more energy within me. I went into a corner and cried.
A woman asked me if I was okay. You know the type of “are you okay?” question that feels like an invitation to tell someone all? That’s what I did. I emptied my soul to that stranger. She asked me to come with her to a hotel where many people were waiting instead of staying at the shelter.
At first, I would interact only with my roommate, this other woman from Colombia. She knew I had learned the Canadian immigration and refugee act while I was pregnant and that I was a lawyer. She also knew I was scared of feeding my kid anything other than formula. We made a trade. She started introducing Matthew to more exciting baby foods, and I shared information that she would need when talking to an immigration officer.
Word got out quickly. People would come to our room to ask questions about the process, and before I knew it, I had a whole community caring for my baby. He never knew much about sleeping on a hotel bed since he had so many willing arms to go to. Baby Matthew and I saw many people pass through the hotel. People left, and people arrived until one day, about eight weeks later, it was our turn.
I put on my running shoes. After crossing the Peace Bridge and answering an immigration officer’s questions, I arrived in a beautiful room with a bed and a crib covered in white linens: a place that looked like heaven, where I would learn to be free again.
I took off my white Puma running shoes.
Paola Gomez is a refugee from Colombia. In her career, she has been an artist facilitator, a writer and a human rights lawyer. Paola is also the co-founder of Muse Arts in Toronto. In 2016 she was awarded the City of Toronto Human Rights Award on the Status of Women.