AP NEWS

On Stage, the Immigrant Experience

January 2, 2019

LOWELL -- Somali refugees fled to escape the unyielding violence plaguing their country, including 2,500 refugees who found sanctuary in Lewiston, Maine between 2001 and 2003.

It was during that time that the story shared by Cheryl Hamilton begins.

Hamilton was drawn to help manage the unexpected migration of Somali refugees to her hometown of Lewiston, roughly 30 miles north of Portland.

From there came a desire to better understand the life for Somalis before they came to the U.S. This led Hamilton to leave her hometown and join an organization working in refugee camps in Nairobi, Kenya.

A sentiment the 41-year-old Medford resident consistently repeats when talking about a nearly 20-year career dedicated to advancing refugee resettlement and immigrant integration is, “Facts are important, but it’s stories that connect with people.”

Capturing that theme, Hamilton talks about a trip to a Nairobi departure center. Refugees make their last stop to the centers before resettling in countries worldwide.

“When you walk in there’s a line of suitcases, and each of them has masking tape on it and it says the name of the family and their destination,” Hamilton said. “It might say Paris, France, it might say San Diego, California. Well, when I went there for my first visit ever, there was one that said Lewiston, Maine -- my hometown. As you can imagine, I was startled and excited.”

With the help of an interpretor, she found the owner of the suitcase -- a Somali woman who had been separated from her husband for many years.

“What was most remarkable, when I asked her who her husband was, turns out I knew him,” Hamilton said. “For me, it just reminded me of how small this world really is.”

This story became the catalyst of a project created by Hamilton known as the Suitcase Stories series, launched in March 2017 through the International Institute of New England. Hamilton works within the group’s Lowell office.

The nonprofit supports 2,000 refugees and immigrants each year in Lowell, Boston, and Manchester. IINE provides resettlements, education, workforce development and pathways to citizenship. The organization is also celebrating its 100th anniversary, having been founded in Lowell in 1918.

Hamilton came in contact with a range of people and their stories through IINE. With the growth of negative rhetoric surrounding immigration in the U.S., she decided to raise the profile of refugees and immigrants in the U.S. through their stories. The stories are told by both U.S. and foreign-born individuals residing in New England, with topics that include hopes, dreams, fears and family, according to Hamilton.

Among those who share their story is a young Sudanese man forced to flee his home country at the age of 1 due to the outbreak of war, Hamilton said. He was displaced for 20 years, living in a refugee camp in Kenya, before coming to Lowell.

“The story is really beautiful, because it talks about how he didn’t know that that wasn’t what home was like because that was the only home he ever knew,” Hamilton said. “It wasn’t until he was a teenager when he found out that the word ‘refugee’ was even a word, and that existence was different from every other child in the world.”

Hamilton touches on another woman from Syria who, along with her family, saved money to buy a house -- a dream they had for years. Finally, they were able to purchase a home in Aleppo, the country’s capital. Then, within six months, the country’s brutal civil war broke out.

“They had just decorated it and put years into the heart of this home and within months they were displaced and they now live here in Lowell,” Hamilton said. “Her message is, ‘We lost our home but at least we found safety.’”

At first, Hamilton worked to host four shows, each included a handful of individuals with diverse backgrounds. It led to a demand for more, with a total of 12 main-stage performances now taking place. Since the program launched, there have been 75 people from 35 different countries telling a story of immigration. A number of them hail from Lowell, according to Hamilton.

“I think some people imagine a whole evening of really heavy pieces that perhaps deal with discrimination, or violence, or surviving civil war -- and we have those, because those are important to remind people why others come to this country -- but the shows also features humor and funny moments of cultural interactions,” she said. “It’s really a roller coaster of an evening.”

With Suitcase Stories series growing in popularity, Hamilton became one of the 12 speakers selected to participate in the 2019 TEDxNatick event, scheduled next month.

TED -- Technology, Entertainment and Design -- is a nonprofit dedicated to spreading ideas on a range of topics, typically through powerful talks. Meanwhile, the independently run TEDx events are used to share ideas in communities around the world.

Hamilton will be participating in the TEDxNatick event, allowing her to share her work building and supporting inclusive communities through story telling. The event is slated to take place at Natick High School on Jan. 26.

From there, Hamilton’s plan is to keep the stories flowing.

For a list and a short biography on the TEDxNatick 2019 speakers, including Hamilton, visit tedxnatick.org/copy-of-tedxnatick-2018 .

For more information on the International Institute of New England, visit iine.org . To track down information on the Suitcase Stories series, including a show scheduled to take place Feb. 1 in Sommerville, visit suitcasestories.org .

Follow Aaron Curtis on Twitter @aselahcurtis