A Pair of Shoes Changed My Life

Waad Shurbaji (+Video)


A woman escaping war finds herself living with an unwelcoming family. One day she buys a pair of shoes that leads her to a new home and purpose.


“Let’s pretend this is just another day. I’m just going to work. Please stay home. Don’t come with me to the airport,” said my husband Nedal.

I wanted to tell him, “Please don’t leave.” 

His eyes are telling me the same thing: “Please ask me to stay.” 

Both of us knew we had to do it. I felt as if my soul were leaving  my body. How could I be alone in a strange country without him?

I arrived in Turkey eight years ago after fleeing the war in Syria. My family endured bombing, killing, starvation and arrests. My mother made the decision because life became unbearable. In Turkey, Nedal and I got married without a party, without our families. Life there was so difficult, but we were close to Syria and ready to return there after the war. As the years passed, though, we realized that we would remain refugees forever. The war was not going to end. We had to seek a normal life elsewhere.

Nedal travelled to Canada, but I had to wait behind. “You’ll meet him soon, just be a little patient,” a voice inside told me every time I felt like giving up. For girls, it’s difficult and dangerous to live alone in a country like Turkey, so I moved into a student house. 

“You’ll be happy living with girls who can be your friends and family,” I thought to myself. But they treated me badly because they didn’t like Syrians. I found myself again without a home. I had to sleep in different places for months. 

Finally, I decided to live with a family where maybe I would feel safe. Unfortunately, we didn’t get along. They didn’t give me any privacy and interfered with everything. They had a relative who came to visit them every day. His “job” was people smuggling. Once I heard him talking about how a girl was killed while being smuggled. I was extremely afraid of him. When I told the host family that he was dangerous, they said, “Shut up or leave.” 

With no other choice, I stayed out even if I felt cold, tired and hungry, and I returned to the home of the host family only to sleep. I used to leave very early before the sun came up. In the afternoon, I slept in the park and spent my time walking, waiting for nightfall.

“You can’t stay outside all day,” my husband said on the phone. “Maybe you can spend a little time at a gym.” 

One day while I was at the mall, a pair of sports shoes caught my eye—navy with stripes of pink and blue. “Maybe they’ll motivate me to go to the gym,” I told myself. 

I went to the gym because I thought it was better than the streets. But after a few months, that place became my favourite. I spent at least five hours there every dayI participated in every class: Pilates, Zumba, yoga, boxing…you name it. I entered competitions, won prizes. I lost weight and became fit. Exercise was like an addiction to me, and I couldn’t stop it even if I wanted to. I lived in those sneakers and cared about them as if they were my babies. The gym was my home, and I became friends with everyone there. 

I never stopped telling myself: “Hope is how a speck of light defeats all the darkness.” When Nedal suggested that I try going to the gym, he helped me find the light.

The day I travelled to Canada. I wore my sneakers. They made me happy, and I knew they’d bring me luck. Those shoes changed my life forever. My dream now is to become a personal trainer.

Waad Shurbaji studied English literature in Syria and worked as a teacher for years. She quit her studies to flee the war. She is married to a man who made up for everything she lost. She lived her life in many places before settling in Canada in 2021. The Shoe Project encouraged her to meet people and to be less afraid to talk about her story.

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