‘Suitcase Stories’ shares immigrant, refugee experiences live
At the Somerville Theater on Feb. 1, Reem Niyazi sits on stage in front of a microphone. She tells the audience about her work as a journalist in Iraq, where she was targeted and attacked while reporting on women’s rights and humanitarian issues. This is her first time telling this story in English. Niyazi is one of many immigrants and refugees who take the stage to bare their souls during “Suitcase Stories,” a traveling live performance series telling foreign and U.S.-born immigrant stories.
Produced by the International Institute of New England, the show challenges audiences to reimagine the immigrant experience. “We launched ‘Suitcase Stories’ in 2017 to demonstrate what it’s actually like to be an immigrant, not what you may be hearing otherwise,” says host Theresa Okokon. Some storytellers are children of immigrants and others immigrated as new parents. Some of the stories are funny, some of them are heartbreaking, and all of them are different. The show is a living, breathing example of the diversity of immigrants and refugees and their experiences. It rips “migration” from the headlines and turns it from a political propaganda tool into a group of real people.
Kwasi Mensah talks about wanting to pass his native language of Twi on to his future children, although he had lost most of it by adulthood. He says he wants to take advantage of this opportunity to pass on familial culture because many slaves were deprived of that. And so, with the audience, he embarks on the humorous and challenging road of trying to relearn his own language.
Gastor Almonte talks about chickens. The Brooklyn, New York native, now a comedian, grew up in a large family of immigrants from the Dominican Republic. When their neighborhood was experiencing an uptick in break-ins and car damages, Almonte’s grandfather recommended buying chickens for protection. The neighbors, and his own family, thought he was crazy. But the chickens ultimately ended up saving the family from a robbery. This story in and of itself illustrates the immigrant experience. They may not always be able to articulate their logic — or it may not make sense to others even if they can — but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.
“Suitcase Stories” can also be seen on “Stories from the Stage,” a collaboration between PBS, World Channel, WGBH Events and Massmouth. Though each iteration features different storytellers, the humanity of each story is the same.