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‘Suitcase Stories’ zooms into the lives of Boston’s immigrant neighbors

Adolfo Gomes, a new "Suitcase" participant, shares a COVID-19 story that will be released online later this season.
Adolfo Gomes, a new "Suitcase" participant, shares a COVID-19 story that will be released online later this season.COURTESY OF THE INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE OF NEW ENGLAND

Four years ago, Cheryl Hamilton had no idea that her new side project at work would grow into a full-time role, giving around 200 individuals from 80 nations around the world a platform to be heard and enriching public understanding of immigrants.

“As a joke I tell people, if you’d asked me four years ago if I’d be full-time storytelling, I would have been like: What? But I am, and it’s crazy, and it’s wonderful,” she said in an interview.

Today, Hamilton is the director of “Suitcase Stories,” a spoken-word program from IINE (International Institute of New England) in the tradition of “The Moth,” but for immigrants. This week brings “Suitcase Stories: Boston Immigrants Unpack 2020,” a free event at 7 p.m. Thursday over Zoom, presented in partnership with the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement. The event will feature different speakers who live in the Boston area, hailing from Brazil, Haiti, Iran, Nicaragua, the Philippines, and Senegal. Each will share an eight- to 10-minute tale illuminating how COVID-19 affected their lives last year.

The idea behind “Suitcase Stories” is simple: “It allows them to speak for themselves, instead of having other people speak for them,” Hamilton said. To many, immigrants are just essential workers, the nameless faces who suffered many of COVID-19′s greatest hardships: unemployment, death, starvation, eviction. Or worse, they are seen as threats.

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Adolfo Gomes, a new “Suitcase” storyteller and former client of IINE from Brazil, said that he hopes it will show that “We are not bad, we are here to improve ourselves. To serve the United States, to make a contribution.” His story is about how the stay-at-home advisory happened on his birthday last year, driving him from job to job. It will be released online later this year.

Yusufi Vali, director of the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement, agrees. “We have to move beyond people’s labels to tell people’s authentic stories,” he said in a phone interview. Vali hopes the event will help Bostonians and viewers “see each other as human beings and neighbors, a community during this time.”

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This is the first collaboration between the mayor’s office and IINE, an immigrant and refugee services organization that grew in local influence as it expanded partnerships with schools, libraries, and businesses through “Suitcase Stories.”

Back when the “Suitcase” project was an in-person traveling spoken-word phenomenon, events regularly drew sold-out crowds. But in 2020, Hamilton and her team were thrown. “Twenty shows and programs canceled in a week,” she said. “The first one to two weeks were rough. Just sad.” But then they realized they could still offer programs virtually. Since then, they have rebooted the experience and built out several offerings for stay-at-home audiences.

Hamilton sees the program as an opportunity to help immigrants build their confidence as public speakers, expand their network in a new country, and understand the value of what they offer. “So many are nervous,” she said. They worry: “Are they gonna care?” She offers reassurance, coaching them through the process with weekly group practices over Zoom. And it goes on to pay dividends.

“It helped me become a really good public speaker,” said frequent "Suitcase" storyteller Biar Kon.
“It helped me become a really good public speaker,” said frequent "Suitcase" storyteller Biar Kon.Courtesy International Institute of New England

“When I first came here, it was really hard for me to actually stand in front of 10 people,” said Biar Kon, a former refugee from Sudan who has participated with “Suitcase Stories” many times in the past few years and worked for IINE as an interpreter. But he got better and better at it, gaining momentum and confidence. When he graduated with his associate’s degree from Middlesex Community College in 2019, he even became the commencement speaker, addressing over 1,000 people. “It helped me become a really good public speaker,” Kon said. He is now studying business at UMass Lowell.

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Miriam Morales, owner of West Roxbury darling Recreo Coffee, will be a speaker at Thursday’s event. “My topic is my business and just how my community has come and rallied with us,” said Morales, who grew up in Nicaragua. “I just really hope that what we’re doing will inspire people who especially this year are extremely discouraged, and [who] are not seeing [anything] positive.” Other local notables participating include Maedeh Marzoughi Ardekani from Boston Medical Center and Natalícia Tracy, executive director of the Brazilian Worker Center.

There will be inspiring tales from leaders, but also everyday stories. “It’s important to remind people that 2020 is not just COVID,” Hamilton said. “Life happened: births, deaths, anniversaries. Moments of levity. Humor.” That’s what Thursday’s show sets out to do: animate the ups and downs of a difficult year while restoring some connection in this polarized moment.

SUITCASE STORIES: BOSTON IMMIGRANTS UNPACK 2020

Jan. 14, 7-8:15 p.m. www.boston.gov/calendar/suitcase-stories-boston-immigrants-unpack-2020

Victoria Zhuang can be reached at victoria.zhuang1@protonmail.com.