by Cheryl Hamilton, Suitcase Stories Director
We were told that, eventually, everyone would likely know someone infected with COVID-19. My day came when I was reached out to Nano Raies in mid-April. But let me start at the beginning…
Nano and I first met through a mutual friend in 2017, not long after she began her studies at Berklee College of Music. Nano was the first Syrian woman to attend the prestigious college, and I was glad she was able to participate in Suitcase Stories while juggling her studies and the first gigs of her American music career. She described her Suitcase Stories experience – the first time she had performed as a storyteller – as “mortifying but amazing!”
A few weeks ago, when I invited Nano to appear on our virtual Suitcase Conversations series, she told me she could do the conversation, but that she had just recovered from COVID-19. All of our communication had been via text, so I was obviously worried about asking her to do this appearance so close to the end of her recovery period. But I was reassured when she signed into our video chat room for rehearsal, and I could actually see her on screen – smiling, looking fine, and sounding the way she always did. She laughed when I compared the use of her time in quarantine (she taught herself the cello!) with my use of “stay-at home” time (I can now scroll through social media while I listen to a podcast and watch tv).
Nano’s optimism during our Suitcase Conversation was inspiring, and it was great to see her looking so well. It wasn’t long, though, before the virus touched another in my life. A friend from the Congo had tested positive and was quarantined with her family.
I had always suspected that my relatives, many of whom are ICU nurses, fire fighters, and police officers, might be the first people I would know to become infected. For Nano and my Congolese friend be the first in my circle was a stark reminder of how COVID-19, for many reasons, disproportionally affects immigrant communities and people of color. That was a subject Yusufi Vali and I discussed during a similar Suitcase Stories conversation.
Yusufi is the Director of the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Advancement at the City of Boston. He performed with Suitcase Stories in January 2020 at the Somerville Theatre, and his story is a compelling one about his own journey toward fully accepting his faith into his identity. Yusufi’s career has been punctuated by several significant milestones. His first day of college was 9/11. He was the Executive Director of the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center during the Boston Marathon Bombing; and now, he is helping to coordinate the City of Boston’s COVID-19 response for immigrants and refugees.
During our Suitcase Conversation, Yusufi shared suggestions for how people can support our neighbors during this time, including making sure that undocumented immigrants and other low-income families know they are eligible for free-testing.
Among his calls to action, Yusufi also encouraged everyone to ‘give’ if they can, whether to an organization or a neighbor. The way he put it was: “I have just heard so many stories of people struggling.”
But we also hear many stories of people helping, too. Throughout the crisis, IINE has received donations, grants, and other support from foundations, special funds, corporations and many wonderful donors who want to make sure that newcomers have the support they need at this time. To date, IINE has been able to distribute more than $40,000 to people who need food, rent, and essentials in order to stay safe and healthy.
Stories like that, and the good news that both Nano and my Congolese friend are recovering, makes me grateful for the connections and the community we have built.
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