Photo courtesy of International Institute of New England / Facebook

'Suitcase Stories' Initiative Humanizes the Immigrant Experience

“Suitcase Stories,” an initiative by the International Institute of New England to promote the human element of migration, was performed at Boston College on Wednesday evening at the invitation of the Boston College Dramatics Society, with the support of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life.

The International Institute of New England has served the greater Boston area for 101 years, offering refugee resettlement services, English as a Second Language classes, and other services for new Americans. The Institute also has locations in Lowell, Massachusetts, and Manchester, New Hampshire. Together, the International Institute has resettled people from over 164 countries.

The program “Suitcase Stories” was founded in 2016 because “the topic of migration has become so polarized and so vitriolic that what we need to do is bring it back to the humanity and the things we have in common,” said program director Cheryl Hamilton.

“The subject of migration affects all of us,” Hamilton said. “All of us have moved in our lives, all of us have found what it feels like to try to be somewhere new.” 

“Suitcase Stories” tries to bridge this connection through artistry and storytelling. The project attempts to use narratives to create social connection and social integration to humanize a topic that has become increasingly political and less personal.

Hamilton performed the first suitcase story, narrating her trip to Nairobi, Kenya, where she helped to escort a young refugee named Joseph through the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees Departure Center. 

Her story started with 5,000 Somali immigrants migrating to her hometown of Lewiston, Maine. Despite working to resettle them and to “foster relations between natives and newcomers,” Hamilton wanted to experience what those being resettled experienced. 

Walking into the building, holding Joseph’s hand, Hamilton saw a row of suitcases with the family name, the case name, and the location for resettlement. The fourth suitcase in the row had Lewiston, Maine, written across it.

After tracking down the owner of the suitcase, through a translator, Hamilton managed to say, “I’ll see you at home—our home.”

The next story was told by Lorena Leonard, an immigrant from Colombia who had grown up in Menage, Colombia, surrounded by the Andes mountains which, while “enormous and truly majestic,” felt “claustrophobic.”  

“There is unspeakable violence happening outside my door,” Leonard explained. “The infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar, and the drug cartels are spilling blood everywhere, and there is no one to turn to because everyone is compromised.”

Fear permeated everything, and, with the help of her grandfather who became a United States citizen after fighting for the United States in the Korean War, the family began to save money for a visa application. Before they could apply, however, the money is stolen.

Leonard’s story is followed by that of Kevin Dutremble, who works at the International Institute as a social worker.

Dutremble narrated the story of four men from different countries, with different languages and cultures, who managed to live together as housemates and roommates, while building a strong support system. 

In all the time spent living together, they only fought once—over the thermostat. When the fight was broken up by their landlord, he told the four men that “you’re all here because of fighting; we don’t need anymore.”

The message Dutremble sought to highlight is that “people come with their experiences, their relationships, their characteristics, their personalities.” Immigrants and refugees are more than just the data and statistics that politicians throw around in political discourse. There are always people behind the data.

The next section of the performance involved two members of the Boston College Community. Associate Professor of marketing Gergana Nenkov and Jesuit scholar Michael Pheuny told their own stories about migration.

Nenkov recounted her new landlord allowing her and her boyfriend at the time to take the furniture of the apartment next door because the previous owner had left it lying around. Later on, when the neighbor moved in, he told the couple that the furniture had been left for him. 

“Eight years later, in his best man speech at our [Nenkov and her boyfriend's] wedding, he actually told this story and told people that the friendship began with a robbery,” Nenkov said.

“Wherever you are just forming, meaningful connection is what makes a place home,” Nenkov concluded.

Pheuny told his story about traveling to several countries after growing up in Malaysia. He spent time in Ireland studying to become an engineer, which is when he first thought that he might want to be a priest. His parents, who were paying for his education, talked him out of it by telling him to finish his degree and then think about the priesthood.

It was not until Pheuny was working towards receiving his master's degree in engineering in Ireland several years later that he remembered he had wanted to be a priest.

After spending time considering different orders, he settled on the Jesuits and moved back to Malaysia to enter the order there. However, he has “never spent a full year in Malaysia since joining the Jesuits.”

Pheuny said, “I think the longest journey I ever had was just that little step—trust a little bit more in God.”

Next, Renaz Moulla spoke about her experience as a Kurd living in Syria, and later, as a Kurd living in America.

As a Kurd in Syria, Moulla could not speak her own language and was told constantly that she “didn’t look like [a Kurd]” by people who meant it as a compliment. In America, she often gets told she “doesn’t look like a Syrian.” 

“It’s not a religion, it’s a nationality,” Moulla explained.

Moulla concluded by condemning the recent decision by the Trump administration to withdraw troops from Syria that led to the death of “11,000 Kurdish people just from the beginning of October.” 

The last “Suitcase Story” was told by Chris Ko, a Boston College graduate who now works for the International Institute of New England as the research, monitoring, and evaluating specialist for all three sites.

Ko also grew up in Guatemala as the son of two Taiwanese immigrants. He grew up on the outside of Guatemalan life, never quite fitting in. In fifth grade, due to violence, he moved to Texas, but still felt like an outsider. 

Eventually, Ko’s family moved back to Taiwan, a place he still did not feel at home in. He had developed a fear that he would never fit in anywhere. This fear plagued him, especially as his high school graduation grew closer. 

It took a friend sharing that he would give anything to have seen all the places he had for Ko to begin to see all the travels in his life differently. Ko has never called any of the places home, but as his friend reminded, he had many homes.

“And the truth is, home isn’t a place. Home is an idea. Home is the people around you,” Ko said.

“Suitcase Stories” will be presented in cooperation with the Institute of Contemporary Art on Nov. 7.

Making mountains out of molehills and facts out of printers since the turn of the century