♪ NANO RAEIS: After the war had broke out, what I really loved the most is music.
And this is the only thing that no one can take away from me.
SZIFRA BIRKE: I'm 16.
I'm a cheerleader.
I just want to be normal.
I'm originally from India.
(laughter) THERESA OKOKON: Tonight's theme is "Suitcase Stories."
♪ Tonight you're going to be hearing "Suitcase Stories," stories about the immigrant experience and refugee experience.
And while many of us may not be immigrants or refugees, many of us also do have stories about travel, stories about having to pick up from where we are and resettle.
And even if you have nothing on paper in common with the person who is on stage, there is so much that we as humans all have in common with each other.
♪ BIRKE: My parents were originally from Poland.
They came to the U.S. after the Holocaust, they were both Holocaust survivors whose entire families-- all but three cousins on each side-- everyone else was killed, was exterminated during the Holocaust.
And they really did not talk very personally about their families.
- Do you regret not being able to ask more questions?
I could have actually asked the questions had I realized that I could've asked the questions.
But by the time I realized it, my dad had died, and so I did ask my mom more questions.
But I think it's a bit of a mission for me to encourage children-- grown children-- of refugees to dare to ask, and even ask, like, lightweight things.
Because we're taught to stay away from anything historic, and then we don't have all this information, and our parents actually are ready to talk.
But we don't know that.
So tonight's theme is "Suitcase Stories."
It's stories about immigrants and the refugee experience.
So what does the theme for tonight mean to you?
So I think the whole immigrant refugee experience is really the central organizing principle of my life.
(voice breaking): Um... there's a lot to say about that.
But it's, like, if there's fabric, and there's one primary color, it's the one that... dominates, yeah.
♪ I'm 16 years old.
I'm at City Hall with my younger sister, Ros, and I'm there for my birth certificate so that I can get my driver's permit.
And I, am, psyched.
I'm pretty excited about the idea of driving.
So I tell the woman behind the counter, "Susan Birke, B-I-R-K-E." And before I can even tell her my birthdate, she says, "Oh, honey, I know your family, and that's not your name."
And I think, "I'm 16.
"I've lived with this for a long time, I think I know it's my name."
She said, "It has a Z in it."
And I think, "Oh, well, maybe they spelled Susan with a Z, "because my parents are Holocaust survivors, "English was their fourth language, and they spelled, may we say creatively."
So she hands me back a piece of paper, a little white piece of paper, and she's right, it has a Z on it.
It says, "S-Z-I-F-R-A R. Birke, B-I-R-K-E." We are the only B-I-R-K-Es in Lowell, and it's June 28, 1950, this must be me.
But this is a me I have never seen before.
Walking back to my parents' clothing store, my sister and I are, like, "Sifra," "Zifra," "Sy-fra," "Zy-fra."
Until my sister breaks out in hysterical laughter and says, "Oh, my God, Sue, they named you Szifra."
I'm a cheerleader.
I just want to be normal.
I just want to be Susan Birke.
It wasn't a great name, no frills, no fuss, but it worked just fine.
Now I find out that I am going to be Szifra?
Szifra is my Hebrew name.
When you're a Jew, you get a Hebrew name.
You don't do anything with your Hebrew name, you just have it.
We get back to my parents' store.
I show them this piece of paper.
I am melting down near tears.
They ignore me.
They start this volley back and forth-- or as my dad would say, "Forth and back."
(imitating Polish accent): "So, Stella, voos is this R?
I thought we named her Szifra Leah."
"Yeah, I thought we did, too."
(laughter) "I think I figured it out.
I think we named her Rukhl."
(laughter) Rukhl-- what does that sound like?
25 minutes ago, I'm Susan Birke.
No middle initial, no nothing, I'm just Susan Birke.
Now, 25 minutes later, I am 16 years old, in Lowell, Massachusetts, and I'm Szifra Rukhl Birke.
(laughter) That night, I'm, like, "So where did the Susan come from, then, all these years?"
(imitating Polish accent): "Vell, a customer.
"Ve vas calling you Szifra, "a customer told us it's not a good name in America.
"Ve say, 'Vat should ve call her?'
"They tell us, 'A good American name is Susan.'
"So ve called you Susan.
(laughter) I guess ve forgot."
(laughter) Between that moment and going to B.U.
to college, I am back and forth-- or forth and back-- about, do I go with Szifra?
Do I go with Susan?
Do I go-- what do I do here?
And I decide to take the plunge and go to B.U.
I tell people my name is Szifra when they ask, and they call me Szifra, 'cause I just told them that was my name.
On the home front, my eight-year-old brother is deciding to be a big ally and he tells people, my friends when they call, "We don't have a Sue or Susan who lives in our home, but we do have a Szifra, if you would like to speak with her."
(laughter) I'm 30, living in Indiana, couple of sons, people ask me about my name, I tell them the truth, Szifra was an Egyptian nursemaid.
I tell them the half-truth, she was an Egyptian nursemaid, but I don't tell them the Jewish part of the story.
I'm 50 years old with my mom, sitting at her table, and my very stoic mom is staring at me very intently with tears in her eyes.
My mother doesn't have tears in her eyes very often.
I ask, "Like, so, is everything okay?"
(imitating Polish accent): "Yeah, Szif, everything's okay."
"It doesn't look like everything's okay."
(imitating Polish accent): "Vell, I'm just thinking, looking at you, you look just like my mother."
Well, I don't know if that's, like, a good thing or a bad thing.
Because my mother's mother, Szifra, and her father, and her brothers, and her sister, and the rest of the family were exterminated in the Holocaust, like my dad's family.
So I decide to ask her, "Is this hard?"
And she says, (imitating Polish accent): "Vell, yeah, it's hard, "but it's a good hard.
"Because I loved my mother.
"I loved her so much.
(voice breaking): "And when I look at you, I see my mother.
"And I get to see her close and be close to her.
I'm so glad we named you Szifra."
"And I'm so glad you named me Szifra, too."
It's been 51 years since that moment when I would have done anything to be the cheerleader Susan Birke.
Today, when people ask me about my name-- which you can imagine happens regularly, S-Z-I-F-R-A, Szifra-- I tell them the whole story.
I tell them that Szifra was one of the two very brave Egyptian nursemaids who refused to obey the pharaoh's orders to kill the Jewish boys-- the Jewish boy infants.
That Szifra was my grandmother's name, and she was killed in the Holocaust.
I tell them all sorts of things about my name, including the Jewish part of the story.
I was too nervous at 30 to tell the Jewish part of the story, and to talk about my name.
Today, I couldn't be more proud, more honored, to be able (voice breaking): to share my name, and to share this story for all the Szifras, and all the Rukhls, and all of the Leyzers, and Khayims, and all of the people who couldn't tell their own story because they didn't survive to tell it.
(cheers and applause) ♪ I have an incredible empathy connection with immigrants and refugees from just about everywhere.
If I hear an accent, then some part of me just perks up and wants to be in their life a little bit, and smile broader, and make eye contact better, and let them know they're welcome.
♪ ABHISHEK SHAH: My name is Abhishek Shah.
I am originally from India.
I moved here, United States, a couple of years back, and basically I've done my master's in biomedical engineering, and I work full-time as an engineer.
And otherwise, you know, I'm taking care of my kids, as well as telling stories and stand-up comedy, so making people laugh is my actual passion.
- Wow, that's beautiful.
So what is it about comedy that makes you feel like that's where you really belong?
I think-- to say it a very simple way, the making people laugh.
I know it's very cliché, but I really enjoy making people laugh.
Otherwise I'm changing diapers, which is not fun at all.
Why is the theme for tonight particularly important for you?
SHAH: I'm an immigrant, you know, so it is all immigrant-related, because I am the first member ever in my entire family or extended family to come to the United States, and I literally had no money when I was in the States.
I came here to study biomedical engineering, you know, to do master's and all of that.
It was just me and two suitcases, that's literally how I came to Florida when I first came to United States.
So, you know, ever since then, every day is a new day, every day is a learning, you know, for me.
Because really, I just had my first apple pie, like, last week, so you can imagine how much I'm experiencing every single day.
There are so many things I go through and experience.
So I have a lot of things to share, that's why.
And I think this theme is a perfect fit, not just for my story, but my lifestyle, my personality, everything that I do, it's exactly what it is-- immigration, and you know, being an immigrant, basically.
(applause) Hello, everyone.
I'm originally from India.
(laughter) I moved to United States a couple of years back, and the reason I moved was, when I was a kid, when I was in India, I used to watch this series called "Baywatch."
(laughter) And I was, like, "That's where I want to go when I grow up."
So I moved to United States, and I was the first person in my entire family, as well as my extended family, to come to United States, and there was absolutely no one else from my family.
So when I came here a couple of years back, every time when I had to talk to my family, I always was doing video chatting through Skype.
And whatever I had to talk, you know, I always used to log in Skype, and talk to my parents and everyone back in India.
And, you know, tell about different things that I see here.
So, couple of years I was in United States, and then one day there was something very important that I wanted to talk to my parents.
So I logged into Skype, and my mom and my dad was there.
And I said, "Mom, I want to talk to you about something very important today."
And she was, like, "Did you start having drugs?"
I was, like, "No, no, Mom, would you please listen to me?"
It was, like, "Oh, did you have any affair?
"Did you mess up with my cooking again?
Do you need my recipe again?"
I'm, like, "Mom, no.
"Would you stop making fun of me?
"I want to talk to you about something very important.
I want to start eating beef."
(laughter) And she was, like... That was her expression.
I was, like, "Did I-- did my laptop got hanged, "or is she... or is she frozen?
Like, what's... what's going on?"
So I was, like, "Mom, are you there?"
And she was still like this.
(laughter) She was, like, "You were this much when you were born."
(laughter) I was, like, "Well, everyone is this much when they are born.
Where are you going with this?"
She's, like, "You have no idea.
What are you, what are you even thinking?"
I was, like, "No, Mom, I'll explain."
And then she was, like, "Uh, uh, uh, uh."
So my laptop got hanged.
And then my video got fast-forwarded, and she was, like... (gibberish) Fa, fa, fa... (gibberish) (quickly): What are you thinking, what are... La, la, la... (gibberish) La, la... (gibberish) I was, like, whoa.
This video is messed up, and so am I. I was really upset, and, you know, I just closed my laptop, and I was just disappointed that, you know, my mom was upset about it.
Because I was thinking about having beef because all my friends were having beef, and they thought it was cool, so I thought, "Okay, I will also give it a try."
But my mom was so upset, I just closed my laptop, and just at the same time, my roommate, who was in another room, he came out of his room and he was, like, "Dude, you messed up my sleep."
I was, like, "Yeah, well, even my sleep is messed up."
He's, like, "You know, you messed up my sleep so bad, holy cow."
(laughter) I was, like, "I don't think you should say 'holy cow' right now.
(laughter) It's just a bad timing."
(laughter) But I was all upset, and, you know, my roommate also got to hear, and he was also upset.
But my brother, who was in another room at the same time when this incident happened, he called me, and he was, like, "You know, I heard the conversation, "and I understand where you are coming from, "and what your thought process is "because a lot of people in the United States "follow the religion by choice, "and not necessarily by religion.
"So I understand that you are also thinking on the same lines, you know, so it's totally okay."
And then he said that, "You know, if you do try beef, try grilled beef."
(laughter) And I was, like, "Whoa, you, too?"
(laughter) Thank you so much, you guys are amazing, thank you.
(cheers and applause) It's like a good thing to do to always seek blessings from your elders, especially your parents.
And you know, I probably didn't understand the significance before I asked them, but after asking them, I definitely realized that, how much it meant for them.
♪ OKOKON: Nano, to get started, can you just tell me a bit about yourself?
So I am from Homs, Syria.
I've been here in the U.S. for about a year and a half, and I came here because I wanted to pursue my dream, my passion in singing.
In Syria, you either do medicine or you do engineering, or just anything else, but not really music.
It's something you don't really dare to think about or to dream about.
Like-- and if you are a female, it's even harder.
So thinking about the story that you're going to tell us tonight, why is it important to you that you tell this story?
It speaks about a lot of others that have been kind of muted.
As a female Syrian, I was not allowed to live the life that I wanted.
I would want to raise awareness that no matter what you have been through, if it's war, or anything else, that you can still really do what you love if you just believe in it, and if you work for it.
♪ It's the, the beginning of the war, and I am in the bus station in Homs, Syria, my hometown.
And I am waiting to go on the bus to Damascus, the capital.
Everyone around me on this bus is trying to flee Homs.
While all I can think about is that I can't wait to see my voice teacher.
She's this loud, amazing, happy, energetic, like, a diva kind of a person.
And my mom found her because she heard me singing in the shower when I was 18.
Although I had been singing since I was six, and I sang the same two songs over and over.
Like seriously, Mom?
Now you hear me after all these years?
And in that same night when she heard me, my mom, she invited everyone in the family, and my aunts, and she made me sing.
She begged me, she forced me to sing, but I was so scared.
But then when I sang, it just felt amazing, and I got so hooked, that in, after two days, I sang in front of 50 people, and I remember how they all stood there in silence, looking at me, surprised.
And then when I finished, they all came and hugged me, and they showed me how much they loved it.
I was really, really, really happy.
But in the same time, I was really sad.
Because it was only a hobby, and I was not allowed to think about it as a career.
And because of that I went on, and I did architecture for five years in Aleppo.
Because I was brainwashed, because that's what I was supposed to do, and because music had a bad reputation.
Especially for a female, I would thought to be loose.
So I just did architecture.
But what really kept me living in those five years is my four-hour bus ride to Aleppo, where I sit and listen to songs, and I dream that I am singing them on the stage.
And I was then taking voice classes with the same teacher, but she cut me off of the classes because I wasn't taking it in a serious way.
Of course, because it was a hobby.
And I went on, I did master's in landscape architecture, because that's the path that has been drawn for me, and that's what I'm supposed to do.
But now after the war had broke out, and I watched a lot of people and friends dying, and I went to a lot of their funerals, being with their families, mourning them, the ones that we lost, they have left us.
And seeing my dad losing all his businesses that he worked all his life for, everything was burnt, and destroyed.
Only then I really realized that what I really loved the most is music.
And this is the only thing that no one can take away from me.
And this is the only time that I wasn't blind of what I really loved the most, and what's worth living for.
And I called my voice coach, crying, begging her to take me back.
And that's, it's the only thing that I really want to do, and that's the only thing, nothing else.
I want to put my heart and soul in that.
I want to sing and that's it.
And she accepted me, and she took me back, and I have been taking this bus every Wednesday, risking everything, and I didn't even care.
I want to do my passion.
These classes brought me the feelings of Heaven, feelings I can't express.
I sing and fly, I don't think of the war for an hour.
It's just the most amazing thing.
And I sing more than two songs now.
(laughter) And now five years later, I am taking a different bus-- the Green Line-- to go to Berklee College of Music, and I am the first Syrian female that ever attended Berklee.
(audience member whoops) And... (applause) Yeah!
It's a dream come true.
It's a dream every day.
(applause) ♪ I think I did well.
I said my story before, but it was like a question and an answer, not really... a structured, six-minute kind of a story that I have to follow, and then I am the whole time trying to remember.
But yeah, it was fun.
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