Unpacking Community at Suitcase Stories

June 24, 2024
• Immigrants and residents explored cultural identity, difference and struggle at Suitcase Stories, a live storytelling event focused on global migration.

In celebration of World Refugee Day, a collection of storytellers gathered at Wellesley College’s Lulu Chow Wang Campus Center to unfold a piece of their lives to an audience. The Needham Area Immigration Justice Task Force and the Needham Community Council presented the event, in collaboration with Stellar Story Company, the International Institute of New England and local partners.

Three of the six storytellers call Needham home. Here are excerpts from their stories.

‘The proud daughter of the Chihuahuan Desert’

In a Memphis bus station, Massiel Gallardo experienced her first racial microaggression at 12 years old. She, along with her sister and mother, were 22 hours into a 57-hour trip east to Worcester, where her mother hoped to work odd jobs for better wages than those she earned in Mexico.

As they boarded their bus transfer, a group of people started antagonizing them, asking if they were Mexican and imitating Speedy Gonzales, the Warner Brothers cartoon mouse. On their bus ride, Gallardo recalls wondering why they were “looking at us with contempt.”

It was just her first encounter with hate.

“And while the bus ride ended, the microaggressions and xenophobia continued,” Gallardo, of Needham, said.

Massiel Gallardo, of Needham, shares her experience with migration during Suitcase Stories June 20, 2024. (Cameron Morsberger)

Employers would question her family’s immigration status, even though Gallardo and her sister were born in Texas and her mother held a master’s degree in education and was a naturalized U.S. citizen.

Her grandmother, two decades earlier, made the same trek for work opportunities, taking her eight children to the border in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico to work as a school teacher.

“My grandmother was a trailblazer, and so is my mom,” Gallardo said. “And here was my mom, 25 years later, paving the road for a better future for her daughters.”

Even today, microaggressions persist — at the doctor’s office, at work and elsewhere — she said, but Gallardo remains “the proud daughter of the Chihuahuan Desert.”

“I’m very proud of my Mexican heritage because I’m not that 12-year-old girl who was riding across the country in that bus without a voice and was unable to unpack the heavy weight of racial microaggressions,” Gallardo said, “but most importantly, because denying my heritage would undermine the stories of millions of people who have not been heard who work and live across the border.”

‘Cultural cracks’

Growing up in Nigeria, Foluke Ajayi’s parents served as the ultimate authority. Their word was final, but Ajayi “could not get upset,” she said.

When Ajayi left Nigeria, with her own children now, she began to see the same generational tensions manifest.

“Little did I know that I have just lost the village that was supporting me to raise my kids,” she said, “because when we got to Needham, the cracks started building up — cultural cracks.”

Her kids complained about doing chores, and Ajayi contended with different customs — other children called Ajayi by her first name, which she disapproved of. But she, too, had her own learning to do: In Nigeria, not making eye contact with adults is a sign of respect, but that’s different here.

She also faced her teenage daughter’s desire to wear “skimpy outfits” and her son’s love for his hoodie, which made her fear for his safety when he wore it out late at night.

But those cultural cracks came to a head when her children admitted they felt they “have no culture,” Ajayi said. They were caught between two cultures but felt disconnected from both.

After training to become a family life coach for immigrant women, Ajayi discovered her experience wasn’t a unique one: In a single week, she met two Nigerian-American families both struggling with managing their home, and both had asked their daughters to move out.

“I started hearing stories about mothers and fathers like me raising up kids in the diaspora who are struggling with their kids and the relationships and the behaviors,” Ajayi said.

Across three generations of family members, each with their own personal battles, Ajayi drew comparisons between the adolescents she supports and her own daughter, who herself once felt she did not belong.

Foluke Ajayi, of Needham, spoke about cultural differences between America and Nigeria during her Suitcase Story June 20, 2024. (Cameron Morsberger)

Finding that balance is difficult, and life abroad can feel “isolating,” but Ajayi is striking that balance for her clients and her own family. Her son recently got married, and his groomsmen wore Nigerian fabrics, she said, and her daughter connects with her mom every day for advice.

Her daughter would always ask why Ajayi would “have to turn every discussion into a teachable moment.” She would respond: “Because I’m a mother.”

Survival amid ‘chaos’

In 2020, Natalia Ruban found herself in a Red Roof Inn with no money or food. In that moment, she looked forward to her next paycheck, but knew most of it would cover rent and childcare — food was an afterthought.

Her dream life in America, as a Ukrainian immigrant, had taken a dramatic turn.

“My life is chaos… but I have to survive,” Ruban said, thinking back to that time. “With me, an 8-year-old deaf son, and we are homeless together.”

After her abusive ex-husband kicked her out of their home, Ruban was forced to start from scratch, without any family close by. The mother of two worked as a psychologist in Ukraine, and in the United States, she survived off small wages from her childcare job. She got by on “tuna sandwiches,” she said, and social services didn’t offer the support she needed.

Just when Ruban found a room and could breathe a sigh of relief, the pandemic hit and she lost her job. Their money eventually ran out, and for three days, Ruban and her son could only eat rice.

“It is Christmas, but Santa does not knock on the door,” Ruban said.

A voucher later helped them secure a rental, but it’s unfurnished, and Ruban ended up sleeping on the floor while her son slept on their only cot. Their dining table was “a big box,” she said, but she received help from the community.

The war in Ukraine erupted, and all of their lives again became chaotic. Her oldest son still lived overseas, and Ruban worked to bring him out of harm’s way.

Since then, Ruban’s life has improved — and her wages are a bit higher — though she still has “scars in my heart” from what she endured. By telling her story, she said she hopes to inspire listeners to “shared kindness.”

“I was always a strong person, and for me to ask for help was difficult because I don’t like to feel weak,” Ruban said. “However, even strong people and anyone else can get into troubles. And it’s so wise to accept help.”

About the program

Rinaz Mala, a Needham resident and event host, received flowers at the conclusion of Suitcase Stories June 20, 2024. (Cameron Morsberger)

Cheryl Hamilton, executive director of Stellar Story Company, created Suitcase Stories while working at the International Institute of New England, an organization that provides assistance for newcomers. IINE hosts Suitcase Stories in communities in collaboration with Stellar.

Before Thursday’s performance — the third involving Needham — Hamilton said she believes “every single person has a suitcase story.”

Before the show, Hamilton coaches speakers through their remarks, helping form their stories before taking the stage. She said she takes pride in watching as the speakers find their confidence and spark dialogue and community relationships afterward.

“That’s the power of storytelling. That’s what storytelling is about,” Hamilton said in an interview. “It’s the fastest way to make connections with your neighbors and find our commonalities.”

For Sandy Robinson, executive director of the Needham Community Council, “every story is inspirational.”

“There’s really so many different reasons people arrive on our shores, and I personally believe it’s good for all of us to continue to see different ways of doing things and to have different people’s expertise come and share with those of us who have lived here for a lifetime,” Robinson said.

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