What would you pack? Students bring immigration stories to life from a single suitcase

Students were asked what they would bring if they were an immigrant and could only pack one suitcase — and those suitcases are now on display at the Port Moody Station Museum.

Idea was to 'show individual faces rather than a faceless crowd' when it comes to immigrants

Grade 10 students from Burnaby North Secondary thought about what they would bring if they could only pack one suitcase when they immigrated to Canada. Those suitcases are on display at the Port Moody Station Museum. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

Imagine an old train station in the Lower Mainland, early in the 20th century.

Immigrants walk past worn wooden benches and ticket counters in the wood-frame building as they prepare for their new lives in Canada.

In their hands, they clutch a single suitcase, each filled with the only possessions they brought with them to their new country.

What would they pack? And what do those items say about them?

One battered suitcase took inspiration from the story of a Roma woman. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

Those questions inspired a special art and social studies project from Grade 10 students at Burnaby North Secondary.

Students thought about what they would bring if they could only pack one suitcase — and those suitcases are now on display at the Port Moody Station Museum.

"We wanted to pull immigrants and immigration out of a dark 'blob' of people you fear, that are unknown," said museum coordinator Markus Farher.

"The idea is the students could produce a series of suitcases that show individual faces rather than a faceless crowd."

In Port Moody on Tuesday, students — some in period costume — stepped forward in groups of four, opening each suitcase to reveal a collection of carefully chosen possessions, from photographs to books to clothing.

The suitcases contained items purchased at thrift stores and inspired by the real-life experiences of early 20th-century immigrants to Canada. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

Personal connection

Students were asked to created a fictional character based on research into real immigrant stories dating back to the early 20th century.

Each suitcase revealed the hopes and fears of one of eight individuals.

One worn suitcase was created for an imagined Jewish man who immigrated from Germany. It's carefully packed: a picture frame, an inspection card, a Torah and a watch purchased at thrift stores.

"I think when people hear these stories, they understand it's not just for a better life [that people immigrate]," said student Rebecca Chin, one of the creators of that immigrant's suitcase.

For another student, the project is personal.

Aurora Wei (right) took inspiration for her suitcase from her grandmother's experiences. (Margaret Gallagher/CBC)

Aurora Wei is dressed in a vintage nurse's uniform to portray Chinese immigrant Annie Leong, who is based on her own grandmother, who was a nurse.

"I want them to know how hard it was to immigrate here because of their race,"  Wei said. "Because of their race, they had troubles with everything because they weren't white."

The suitcases will be on display at the museum until June.

Listen to the full story:

If you were immigrating to Canada with only a suitcase, what would you pack? And what would that say about you? Those questions inspired a special project from Grade 10 students at Burnaby North Secondary. 6:36

With files from Margaret Gallagher