What everyone can learn from immigrants’ personal stories

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

Photograph by Patricia Alvarado Nunez/WGBH

Szifra Birke performs at the WGBH Stories from the Stage series.

By Alysia Abbott

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.

Alysia Abbott is a writer in Cambridge Send comments to
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