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The Butterfly Effect

The Butterfly Effect

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The World Through Tom's Shoes


The butterfly effect is a metaphor for the concept that small, seemingly insignificant events—like the fluttering of a butterfly’s wings—can produce tremendous and unanticipated consequences. In this blog, Zainab Salbi, the founder of the humanitarian group Women for Women International, explores the often untapped and under-appreciated capacity of women around the world to cause major and lasting change for good.


Conference gifts bags have never ceased to interest me, bringing either excitement or disappointment when I open them. I find it amazing that no matter how many conferences I go to and regardless of my ability to afford the basic gifts that the bags offer, I still get excited when I see a red lipstick, a mascara, a hand lotion and disappointed when I see pens, pads of paper, or one more fabric bag with the logo of the company on it. After years of speaking in conferences, I have learned to return to the organizers what I know I will not use for better recycling and to keep, with excitement, the lipsticks and items that I will. This was until I was asked about my shoe size a year ago at the Clinton Global Initiative, so I may get a pair of Tom’s shoes. Shoes? I wondered to myself. That’s a new one.

I stared at the pair of shoes when it was given to me. It was very light, with a thin sole and khaki fabric that gives the impression that it is washable. Somewhere in the description of the shoes it said that for every pair of shoes purchased, Tom’s Shoes donates a pair to people in need in other countries. Cool, I thought to myself. The shoes are light enough for my frequent travels where weight of things is always an issue (I am always determined to travel with one bag, no matter how long my trip is). And the business seemed to be very socially conscious, which is always a plus. Little did I know at the time that that pair of khaki shoes would accompany me to France, India, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Jordan, Iraq, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, back to Iraq, and then on to Mexico and Canada. This is not to mention travels within the United States--I walked in those shoes throughout San Francisco, Texas, New York City, Washington, DC, and San Diego, to name a few.

Tom’s shoes became a witness of the land I stepped on and the stories I encounter. I can no longer look at the shoes without having images flash of my journey in Rwanda, where I visited a church in which more than 1600 people were massacred in the 1994 genocide. The church is a memorial today, with the skeletons’ bones all displayed on shelves or taken to museums, or buried properly in mass graves. But the clothes of the dead are left in the church, stacked on top of the pews, which have been organized back in their original forms. The church still smells of death, even though evidence of the mass killing are now organized and sorted rather than left in the chaos of mass murder.

I looked down as I was carefully walking in between the pews, trying to make sense of or, rather, process such atrocities. I almost stepped on a clear bra strap with my Tom’s shoes; I kept staring at it. Who was that woman, I wondered. Who was that woman that was wearing a bra with clear strap the day she was killed. Did she know, as she was putting on the dress that revealed her shoulder, that later that day she would become one of 1600 people massacred with mostly machetes? Did she know that she would witness babies being thrown into the walls to crush their skeletons or that even the statue of Jesus would be destroyed for allegedly looking like a “Tutsi”? Did she know that Mary’s statue would not be broken? She is still standing there today, watching over all the dead of that church.

Did she know the young boy, only 7 at the time, who actually survived? He was one of only 8 survivors at the church that day. He is now a 23-year-old young man. Was she his mother? Would she know how his brother splashed blood on him from his own slashed neck, just before he died, ordering him to pretend he was dead so he could survive and tell me about it now, 16 years later, chocking back the tears?

You see, every time I look down at my Tom’s Shoes, I see these images, I see the clear bra strap. I see the lava rocks of a Congolese refugee camp, where people are living, making tents from sticks they have collected and the plastic sheets the UN has given them for makeshift roofs. Their tents are not much different than a bird’s nest, with the twigs put in a sort of orderly shape to hold the nest or the tent together. I remember that day very clearly. I probably will never forget that day, for it was the day that I saw a 2 year old child screaming as he was laying on the dirt ground and eating mud from hunger. I had heard stories of people eating mud from hunger, but truth be said I never believed them until I saw that child with my own eyes. My colleague gave him two bananas. When he held the bananas, peeled one and took a bite, he stopped crying. My Tom’s Shoes stepped on that ground.

My Tom’s Shoes walked through the red light district of India, where girls as young as 9 and 10 were dressed up in bright colors saris, had bright red lipstick on and heavy make–up, as brothel owners forced them to stand day and night until their quota of 20 customers who will rape them for $1 was met. My Tom’s Shoes saw a girl child running in her torn-off shorts and dirty gray t-shirt towards my friend, latching herself onto him and refusing to let go. I remember her slipper as we stood stunned by the scene and the driver was trying to peel her off of my friend. It was brown, plastic, with a strip that went between her toes, barely holding itself. My friends and I came back the next day, searching for the girl, so we could perhaps take her to a safe place, get her to school, clean her up, comb her beautiful shoulder-length hair. We would have gotten her shoes, not one pair but ever how many pairs she wanted, Tom or no Tom. But we couldn’t find her.

With my Tom’s Shoes I went to visit my mother’s grave in the desert of Iraq. I had to walk for at least 20 minutes to find it, in one of the biggest cemeteries in the world. I passed through so many graves of young men, young women, of people buried 100 years ago and people buried 2 days ago, all cramped in next to each other in a country that had witnessed 3 decades of wars and way too much destruction. Desctruction that even reached my mother’s tombstone--I learned of a missile that had destroyed it about a year ago as there was fighting in the graveyards between different militias.

Every time I look at my Tom’s Shoes now tucked away in my New York city apartment, cramped with other shoes, nice shoes, high heels shoes, colorful shoes, I remember the land I walked through in the last year with my Tom’s Shoes. It wasn’t only the refugee camp of Congo or the church in Rwanda. I wore my Tom’s Shoes in the wilderness of Canada, were I do my annual visit to my native friends and enjoy a tipi stay, a swim in the worlds freshest, most beautiful water, and a night by the fire as stories are told and drums are beaten. I remember walking through the shore of San Diego and sitting by the age of a concrete wall dangling my feet with my Tom’s Shoes on as I see the deep blue water of the Pacific Ocean under me. I remember walking the streets of London with my friends as we went from one shop to another to try one dress after another, or sitting in the cafés of Paris, sipping one espresso after another.

Though I know they are washable, I have not yet washed my Tom’s Shoes. The soles have stepped on too many lands and witnessed with me too many stories to wash them all away. I know a new year has arrived but the sole of my Tom’s Shoes has witnessed a history of the world that I would not want to forget. My travels took me to the most beautiful and the most painful parts of the world, from holy lands, to commercial streets, to destroyed lands, farm lands, and untouched, beautiful lands. My Tom’s shoes saw the world with me in its entirety--in its pain and its beauty--for both of them make the world what it is: a place of light and a place of darkness, a place of hope and a place of despair. And with all of that, I feel a great level of gratitude that I could see both and witness the stories. It is a gratitude for what I have and what I don’t have, for living the world and seeing the world fully, and I have my evidence through the sole of Tom’s Shoes. I think I will not wash them. Let them remain as my witness. Who knows what another conference will bring in its gift bags.
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