It’s not easy to understand another person’s experience, or to communicate true struggle to those who have not known it. Building on the foundation of A Rightful Place, an MJMAG program is seeking to help people from all walks of life better know each other.
It is barely organized chaos in the basement studio space at the Moose Jaw Museum and Art Gallery (MJMAG).
Young children, Grade 2 students from École St. Margaret, cluster around tables clutching shoes, the bottoms of which are covered in paint. They are meant to be pressing those shoes to paper to create footprints in guache, and while that is indeed happening, there is also the usual amount of fooling around.
The light mood is despite the subject matter discussed only moments before. Two women — Howyda Alhaj Ali and Nabiha Alghanem — sat at the opening of a horseshoe of children and related parts of their experience coming to Canada from war-torn Syria. At times it was difficult for them, but they shared their stories with a rapt audience.
The children were part of a program called Walk A Mile In Their Shoes, run by the MJMAG and grown out of the A Rightful Place exhibit featuring the stories of newcomers to Saskatchewan. Education co-ordinator Christy Schweiger wanted to build on the theme and decided to have newcomers in the community decorate shoes in a way that represented their own journeys.
Reaching out even further, however, Schweiger organized a way for some of Moose Jaw’s youngest residents — a few of whom are newcomers themselves — to have a hand in the new exhibit. The activity is meant to teach children about the paths immigrants and refugees often take to get to Canada.
Alghanem recounted how war had broken out in Syria in 2012, and that soon after, she and her husband and their family left the clothing store they ran and made straight for Jordan.
“We left everything and ran right away to Jordan,” she said. “We walked 11 hours in the middle of the night.”
Both women, along with their families, were contacted by UNICEF and offered a place in Moose Jaw. While they lived in the same city in Syria, they only met once in Canada. While the subject matter was hard for them to talk about, and some of it was hard to hear, they said sharing their stories was important.
“They should know why we live in Canada,” said Alhaj Ali. “This is what happened.”
Minutes later, the energy had changed entirely. Children used the painted shoes to make impressions on long banners of paper which will be displayed in the MJMAG gift shop, near a case adorned with footwear decorated by newcomers themselves. Scattered amongst the footprints, children (and a few adults present) wrote the word “shoe” in as many languages as they knew. The piece, which was repeated with other classes over the course of the week, proved a dynamic and visceral illustration of both the differences between people living in Moose Jaw, as well as the things they hold in common.
“These are the newest stories about coming to Canada,” education co-ordinator Christy Schweiger said as the children painted. “But everybody has a part in those stories.”