Walid gazed at the wall of sneakers in front of him at Foot Locker in Yorkdale Shopping Mall. The large selection overwhelmed him as he tried to differentiate between ‘Jordans’ and ‘Air Maxes,’ Ahmed’s top two choices for the new school year. It had been a while since he had gone ‘Back to School’ shopping but with Ahmed entering the 6th grade he figured he should bestow some wisdom on to his younger brother.
“Can you just pick one, we’ve been here an hour,” Walid asserted.
He couldn’t understand the obsession of dwelling on such trivialities as sneakers. Walid was an extraordinary student throughout high school at Westview Centennial Secondary School. Despite the many distractions around him, he persistently aimed for the top marks in all his classes. He was particularly good at maths and sciences. He took pride in this, not sneakers.
Walid wanted to do right by his mother, Iman, a refugee from Mogadishu. She had landed in Toronto, pregnant, on a frigid day in December, with nothing but the clothes on her back and twenty Canadian dollars, which she had found in the ladies room at Pearson International Airport. She knew it wasn’t right but had justified to herself that Allah was guiding her through these treacherous times. When she spotted it, she looked around for witnesses; none were in sight, so she grabbed it and left without a trace. It wouldn’t be until years later that Iman learned of the terrible things others said of her people. But this didn’t change anything; she thought “damn them. I was only trying to survive!”
Iman was at home preparing sambusas when the first bomb dropped. She still remembers her family home going up in flames after leaving her hut with the fire still ablaze. There was no time to take it out. Women, children and the elderly escaped the village in a hurry. Iman searched for her husband, Mohamed, in the corn fields. He had been working since sunrise, as most Darod men had. With every face she saw, Iman’s heart fluttered but came crashing down in her stomach when she realized she was never going to find him.
“We must leave Iman. The soldiers are coming!” a villager asserted.
Walid knew snippets of Iman’s story, mostly in lectured forms. He always thought she would make an excellent professor, what with her charm and charisma. Anytime he drifted off the path of the straight and narrow, which wasn’t often; Iman would remind him of the sacrifices she had to make to come to Canada and more importantly what she had to leave behind.
The first night he heard her talk about Somalia was one he’d never forget. Walid had gone over to a friend’s house on a hot summer’s day. He never smoked marijuana before but was bent on experiencing its effects, as many of his peers seemed to use it recreationally and still did well in their studies. When he got home that night, later than usual, Iman was waiting for him in the living room. The smell was stronger than any perfume she had ever smelled. She recognized it as soon as Walid walked through the door.
“I had a good life in Somalia. You think I wanted to come here? Now I work in a factory. Ten hours every day and for what? For you to go around smoking with thugs? You don’t understand what I had to go through to give you this life you have. Go ahead, go ahead and piss it away,” Iman would profess.
The dramatization was somewhat amusing, but the truth was he didn’t understand. Walid yearned to learn his mother’s history and the journey she took to come to Canada. But he knew better than to ask. It always led to an argument about how the younger generation takes too much for granted and how they are a spoiled bunch. He couldn’t stand to hear it, so he remained blissful in his ignorance. But this only lasted so long.
“Mom, school starts in two weeks. I need new shoes,” Walid nervously stated.
Iman looked at Walid with disdain. She had just bought him a new shirt from the flea market. Despite the financial troubles, Iman knew how hard he had worked the previous school year and told herself this would be the last thing he gets until he graduates from high school. So without a word, she went to her bedroom, grabbed her purse and headed out the door with Walid.
They walked down the street, heading towards Jane and Finch Mall. Walking past Yorkgate Mall, Walid stopped dead in his tracks.
“Mom, the store is in this mall,” Walid expressed.
“I just have to pick something up. We’ll come back,” Iman replied.
She felt wrong lying, but Iman knew where Walid wanted to buy his new pair of shoes. Si Vous Play Sports. The store had all sorts of brand names; Nike, Adidas and Chuck Taylors, all of which were way out of her price range. She would take him to Board Walk Shoes, quality items, for a quality price.
Walid walked up and down the narrow aisles of the store. His superiority showed as he scoffed at the immigrant women who shopped there, including his mother. There was a wedding coming up, and he knew she had a knack for fashion. Iman could do a number in her brightly coloured dirac and a nice pair of heels, so he assumed they were there for that. The store owner, a tall, lanky man of Ethiopian descent, approached Iman.
“These heels are very comfortable. They go well with any colour,” the man uttered.
Iman sighed heavily before professing the truth with pride, “we are here to buy shoes for my son. He is starting high school soon.”
Walid’s eyes shot up. He was furious. How could he have been so stupid? Of course, his mother wasn’t going to buy him the shoes he wanted. Iman looked at him with a boldness he could not handle. The tears just poured out of his eyes. The stacked boxes around him began to go blurry. His mouth quivered as he tried to speak.
“Everyone will laugh at me!” he proclaimed.
“You want fancy shoes? You work for them! You’re going to apply for a job at McDonald’s. I am trying to sponsor your father. The application alone costs as much money as those shoes you want. You’re young now. You don’t understand. When you have a family of your own, you’ll see why I did this.”
Walid went to school that year and became the butt of every joke. He kept telling himself he didn’t care about his mother’s struggles. He was having struggles of his own. Besides, other kids’ parents were going through similar situations and still came to school with the shoes he so desperately wanted. Why was his mother always complaining? Just because they were poor, didn’t mean they didn’t deserve nice things.
It was on Walid’s 14th birthday that he learned about his father’s arrival in Canada. Mohamed had lived his formative years in a refugee camp in Kenya, so when he reunited with his family, everything was alien to him. The food was bland, the weather unbearable, the language was strange, and the way people dressed was unusual.
“These people have no shame. How can you expose your body in such a manner?” he fumed.
Despite the many challenges, Mohamed worked tirelessly at night, driving a taxi, while he learned English during the day. Iman rarely saw him, but with her expecting another child, it was a something she was willing to endure.
Mohamed was still getting familiar with the city when he had a disturbing confrontation with an angry customer. It was on the corner of Yonge and Bloor where the man entered his taxi. Before he could open his mouth to greet the man, Mohamed experienced a hostility that was out of character for most Canadians he had met. The man blurted out obscenities that he could barely understand, but the tension in the car was thick. When he finally exited the vehicle, Mohamed burst into tears and quickly made his way home.
Settling into the living room couch that evening, Mohamed looked stressed. Walid wanted to ask his father if everything was okay but it wasn’t something young Somalian boys did. It was Mohamed’s duty to ensure stability in the household. So, Walid sat in silence, watching the television.
“Let me see your bank book,” Mohamed demanded.
Walid was working at the Jane-Finch McDonald’s for over six months now. Every two weeks, he received a cheque that went straight into his bank account. Mohamed, being the diligent yet strict father he was, made sure Walid saved every dime and dollar for his university education. When Walid handed him his bank book, his hands shook rapidly.
“You took out two hundred dollars. Why?” Mohamed inquired.
“I bought a pair of shoes,” Walid responded.
“After school tomorrow, you’re returning those shoes,” Mohamed professed.
“With all due respect father, I worked for that money. Not you. I will do whatever I want with it,” Walid spoke.
The strike came down so quickly, Walid barely had enough strength to retaliate. Mohamed never hit Walid before that day. Iman was usually the parent who ruled the house with an iron fist. Mohamed, on the other hand, ruled with intimidation. The different methods worked quite well, but something inside him changed that day. He became a different person. To be disrespected by a total stranger was something he could get over but by his son, that hurt.
“What’s happening here?” Iman rushed into the living room and cried out.
Walid explained the situation, and to his surprise, she sided with him. Despite the argument that ensued between his parents that night, Walid went to bed happy knowing his mother had a change of heart. She was finally beginning to understand things from his perspective. And this is when the relationship between Mohamed and Iman began to crumble. They regularly came back to the topic of who was responsible for corrupting the innocent mind of a proud Somali man?
When Walid went to school the next day, he walked the halls feeling an immense sense of pride. But as he passed the popular kids in the hallway, none of them paid him any attention. It was at this moment that he realized he would never be one of them. He sat in his math class feeling depressed. The lecture went in one ear and out the other.
“Okay, everyone. Before I return your tests, I would like to say how proud I am about one student. This person worked very hard this year and got the highest mark on this one,” Mrs. Tran exclaimed.
She walked towards Walid and slapped the test on his desk. In big bold, red letters it read:
“Great job Walid! 98%.”
He could barely contain his excitement. The smile on his face was blindingly bright. He looked out to everyone that day as applause filled the room. But two people were missing who deserved this moment more than he did. Walid ran home that day and waited anxiously for his parents to come home. They never did. Iman was working overtime at the factory, and Mohamed stayed out late driving his cab.
That math test was precisely what Walid needed to get into the best university in Toronto. When he received his acceptance letter, both Iman and Mohamed were overwhelmed with joy. Every chance they got, they bragged to friends and family about his accomplishment. It brought them closer together so raising Ahmed became less of a burden. He had two inspiring influences to look up to and a mother that refused to give up despite all the odds.
Walid had just completed medical school and would begin his residency in Ottawa soon. The financial burden was tough to bear, but in a few years it would all pay off. Plus, Iman and Mohamed had moved out of the apartment complex on Driftwood Avenue to a townhouse across the street. He felt at ease that his parents were finally able to achieve their personal goals and still be able to provide for Ahmed.
“Go take your brother shoe shopping. He’s been bothering me all morning,” Iman protested.
On the drive to the mall, silence filled the air. Walid and Ahmed weren’t close. The age difference made the relationship feel more parental than brotherly. This bothered Walid more than it did Ahmed. He was everything Walid wasn’t growing up. Ahmed was handsome, cool, a ladies man, and popular. He played basketball and did well academically. Deep inside, Walid felt a weird sense of envy. He did not like it at all, but he also could not control it.
When Ahmed spoke to the salesman, he had such bold confidence in him. He was just like their mother. Ahmed spat out terms that Walid did not understand. Retros, premium, flights. After trying on over ten pairs of shoes, he finally decided on one. When the cashier rang up them up at the checkout, Walid’s eyes darted towards the price on the screen.
“$150,” it read.
Everything had come full circle. It was Walid’s turn to teach Ahmed the lessons of his youth. The values Walid had grown up with and that had made him the man he was today were important. Their parents had sacrificed their identities, culture, history and family ties to come to Canada. He had a moral responsibility to carry these over to the next generation. Walid was ready to make his ‘Back in My Day’ speech until he saw Ahmed pull out his wallet and purchase the shoes.
“Where’d you get that money?” Walid inquired.
“Mom. Where else?” Ahmed mockingly replied.
He realized how far his parents had come. Now, in the present day, they were able to buy their son a pair of shoes for the new school year without stressing about how that money could go towards some necessity. It may have been frivolous to buy those pair of shoes, but the emotion behind it sure was not.