ON MIGRATION: What everyone can learn from immigrants’ personal stories

March 29, 2018

Below details the good work of our friend Cheryl Hamilton and our partner organization, International Institute of New England. One of our NIRV filmmakers, Mohammad, is currently making a film about one of their clients!

Massmouth’s Cheryl Hamilton created a storytelling series to help people relate to the experiences of immigrants and refugees.

Patricia Alvarado Núñez/WGBH

PHOTOGRAPH BY PATRICIA ALVARADO NUNEZ/WGBH Szifra Birke performs at the WGBH Stories from the Stage series.


Storytelling is an art, but it’s also a tool, says Cheryl Hamilton, co-director of Massmouth and director of partner engagement at the International Institute of New England, a refugee resettlement agency. She launched Suitcase Stories, a traveling live performance series and social media campaign, in March 2017, to counter negative national coverage about immigrants and refugees. Individual stories, she says, offer a unique way to foster understanding.

“With refugee stories, you hear the same narrative a lot,” Hamilton says.

“‘I fled my country, I lost everything, and came here.’ It’s too big for people to understand. But with storytelling, you can focus on one moment. And people can relate to that.”

At one Suitcase Stories event, Lowell’s Szifra Birke, a child of refugees, told about discovering her Hebrew name at 16, and changing from “Susan the cheerleader” to Szifra. Backstage, she met Alexis Kubana, a Congolese refugee. She ended up inviting him to Thanksgiving dinner, where he joined 20 people from her family. Hamilton wasn’t surprised to hear of the connection.

“At movies, you never talk with your neighbors. At a storytelling show, you share a human experience,” she says.

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On Aug 15th, the day Kabul fell to the Taliban, Basir and his family made their first attempt to get into the airport and onto a plane. It would be nearly a month before they escaped into Pakistan. Over the next weeks they would be beaten at Taliban checkpoints, endure crushing crowds and be threatened and sworn at by soldiers from around the world.


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