'Suitcase Stories' Puts Resettled Refugees On Manchester Stage

Sep 28, 2018

 

Ageth Okeny and her storytelling coach, Cheryl Hamilton, at the International Institute of New England-Manchester.
Credit Sarah Gibson for NHPR

A live storytelling event featuring New Hampshire refugees is coming to Manchester’s Palace Theater this Sunday.

The event, called “Suitcase Stories,” is organized by the International Institute of New England, which resettles refugees in New Hampshire and Massachusetts.

Seven people from Manchester - mostly resettled refugees - will get on stage and tell their stories.

"One of the surprises for people with suitcase stories is that many of these people have never told a story before," says Cheryl Hamilton, the organizer. "Particularly in the Manchester show, these are a lot of new voices."

Hamilton has spent the past month coaching the new storytellers.

Today, she’s with Ageth Okeny, who came here after fleeing Sudan with her kids and living in a refugee camp in Egypt.

They are sitting in an office in downtown Manchester, mapping out Okeny’s story on big pieces of paper.

"So the second chapter will be how the heck you got out of Sudan, then the third chapter will be Egypt, right?"

All the Suitcase Stories performers must fit their story into just 12 minutes. The last chapter of Okeny's story starts in the plane from Egypt to the U.S.

Okeny was scared that people would get onto the plane, drag her out, and force her back to Sudan.

With Hamilton, she practices describing the moment of lift-off.

"I look down, I see it and I cry," she says. "And I release everything. I can’t believe it. I’m up. I’m out."

Okeny’s story is pretty heavy - but there’s a happy surprise at the end, which she won’t reveal until Sunday.

Hamilton has been organizing these shows for over a year in New Hampshire and Massachusetts - she says first-timers usually get nervous before showtime:

"People are backstage and they’re terrified - literally terrified - and they go on and it’s like giving a gift to the world!"

But Okeny isn’t nervous - she’s been wanting to tell her story for decades.

"When you tell it you feel free," she says.

Okeny says so many of her friends here are carrying around stories of their survival, with no outlet.

"They just keep thinking about and they’re not moving forward - because it’s pain, inside, by yourself. So when you come [to Suitcase Stories] and talk to people and you’re all here - everyone can come and say 'I’m on the same page with you.'"

Performers this Sunday come from six different countries: Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan, The Congo, Burma and the United States. The performance will be hosted by NHPR's Peter Biello.