Massiel Gallardo shares her Suitcase Story/ Credit: Georgina Arrieta-Ruetenik

We all like to hear stories and tell our own. It’s a fundamentally human way to connect and learn from one another, and it was the inspiration for Suitcase Stories, an event where immigrants recounted their journeys for an audience. 

“Immigrants go through a lot, but we tend not to notice it,” said Foluke Ajayi, a native of Nigeria, and one of three first-time storytellers from Needham. “We tend to expect so much from them, forgetting that there are so many things they are going through that we can’t see. No matter what kind of life you’ve lived, you have a story to tell. And your story is important.” 

Organized by the Needham Area Immigration Justice Task Force and the Needham Community Council, the event on June 20 — World Refugee Day — brought together six individuals to tell stories of their personal journeys at the Lulu Chow Wang Campus Center at Wellesley College. Rinaz Mala, a Needham resident and Syrian immigrant who told her own Suitcase Story in 2019, emceed the event.

“This was our third show,” said Cheryl Aglio-Girelli, IJTF co-chair. “These events continue to offer a powerful and unique way to learn from our neighbors and celebrate our diversity. Folks come together to get a more accurate picture of our community and to hear diverse cultural experiences that highlight the resilience and strength of immigrants.” 

Ajayi shared the story of her struggles with the cultural differences between her native Nigeria and the United States and how difficult it was for her children to find an identity between the two. 

She recounted her conversations with her teenagers. “They said we have no culture. I said, ‘We are Nigerian.’ They said, ‘No, we’re not. You are Nigerian. We’re not because we don’t know anything about the culture. And we’re not American because you wouldn’t let us be Americans.’ And it made me sad because I thought I was bringing up my kids in America to respect the Nigerian culture, but here they were telling me they had no culture.” 

Foluke Ajayi shares her story/ Credit: Needham Observer

Ajayi recognized how isolated they were, and that they had no one to learn from. After taking several family trips to Nigeria she understood the need for creating a shared identity. She has now become a life coach for immigrant women who struggle with identity.

Massiel Gallardo, also from Needham, told of coming to Massachusetts in the 1980s on a long bus ride from El Paso, Texas, with her mother and sister when she was 12. A raucous group boarded the bus, asking where they were from, whether they were Mexican, and mimicking the Mexican cartoon character Speedy Gonzalez. 

“All I could think about was their question, and their tone,” recounted Gallardo. “How did they know we were Mexican? And why did they mimic Speedy Gonzalez, looking at us with contempt? At that moment, in retrospect, I realized that I had experienced my first racial microaggression. These adults — complete strangers — had placed the heavy weight of microaggressions on my 12-year-old shoulders.”

Gallardo said microaggressions have continued throughout her life from people who assume she is not a U.S. citizen. When a friend asked why she complicates things by saying she is Mexican, she replied, “Because I’m very proud of my Mexican heritage. Because denying my heritage would undermine the stories of millions of people who have not been heard who work and live across the border.”

Off stage, Gallardo commented on the possible impact of her story. “I’m hoping we remember that above all we’re human and that geographical borders should not determine the dignity and the value, the human value that each one of us should have. I’m hoping that we all work as human beings to work on our assumptions and stereotypes and that we are more welcoming of anyone who has made a journey.”

Natalia Ruban came to Needham from Ukraine in 2016, never expecting to have a dramatic story to tell of homelessness as a single mother after her abusive American ex-husband kicked her out of their home. She worked full time but did not earn enough to afford housing. She lost her job during the pandemic, and her son had nothing at Christmas. With assistance from several groups and colleagues she eventually found a place to live. But when Russia attacked Ukraine, she switched her focus to helping family members and friends, and to bring her older son from there to America. 

Natalia Ruban at Suitcase Stories/ Credit: Needham Observer

“I know there are always people who have more challenges than me,” said Ruban. Today I am doing well. I am a citizen of the United States. My family members are safe. I’m helping the United States to raise children into responsible citizens. I donate toys to children in day care where I work. I have a big plan in my life and for my two sons. And also I have scars in my heart as a consequence of our hard life. I still look forward to positive moments again. 

“I was always a strong person,” she said, “and for me to ask for help was difficult. However, even strong people and anyone else can get into trouble and it’s so wise to accept help. With my story I want to inspire people to believe in themselves, no matter what challenge you face. And also, please give to those in need and we will save one more person from feeling broken.”

Ajayi says it’s not just about sharing stories. The real value is in listening to others. “There is a saying in Nigeria where I come from: It’s only somebody who has not gone to another person’s farm who thinks their farm is better. Now that I’ve done this, I want to listen to other stories,” she said. “I want to experience more of other people’s stories and other people’s cultures and just learn. There is a lot of learning to be done and to be had.” 

To prepare for the event, the storytellers were coached by Cheryl Hamilton of the Stellar Story Company, which collaborates on Suitcase Stories with the International Institute of New England. The Needham Diversity Initiative, Needham Human Rights Committee, Needham Resilience Network and League of Women Voters of Needham were community partners for the event.

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