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Suitcase Stories

Suitcase Stories builds safe youth communities that heal trauma through sharing and performing their life stories in refugee camps/center

Photo of Jolien Dirven
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What problem does your innovation solve?

Suitcase stories gives refugee youth an opportunity to build a safe space, make amends with their past and heal from trauma, to connect with likeminded people, acquire new skills ( language skills, creativity, critical thinking, reflective thinking, self-awareness, confidence, presenting, collaboration, communication) have fun, build hopes for the future and share their story with a wider audience all around to find a sense of belonging. Suitcase Stories targets opportunity areas 2, 3 and 4.

Explain your innovation.

Imagine a refugee camp. A big, beautiful, leather and bright coloured suitcase arrives. Inside are many little suitcases, with individual designs and a little book. The book tells a story about an ex-refugee, her horrific but heroic story followed by an epilogue of where she is now and her hopes for the future. The big suitcase comes with foldable stage floor which can be laid anywhere on the premises to create a performance sphere and literally gives these youth a platform to tell their stories. It also comes with an instruction manual for a camp volunteer/supervisor that explains how to run the program and facilitate the healing process and building of a safe and hopeful youth community and how to create a script out of these stories and tools to stage and direct it plus what skills it hopes to enhance and how to trigger them ( language, literacy, creativity, critical thinking, social, communication, collaboration). Each participant will receive a small suitcase to fill with their memories and stories. At the moment 'Suitcase Stories' is already succesfully implemented on a micro scale for refugee youth that comes through an Intensive English Center in western Sydney. Together with a director/ english as a second language specialist and a counsellor a max. of 30 refugee youth get together on Sunday mornings to share their lives stories, which afterwards gets written in a script. They rehearse acting and staging the script of their stories and ultimately perform.

Who benefits?

Any youth from the ages of 12+ that has been displaced and/or fled to other countries or are still in that process will benefit from Suitcase Stories. As long as the material can be send to that particular space, it's an nondanger zone and 2 volunteers are available and willing to run the process it can me implemented anywhere. This also benefits the wider community in these areas as they will find that sense of belonging and understanding when they watch the performanes of Suitcase Stories. I imagine one-off workshops to be ran by the participants with the audience after the performance to give them the opportunity to share their story. Ultimately, as I hope the performances to be filmed, it will be shared with the entire world, building on their understanding and respect for refugees as mutual human beings. Also, once these refugees are settled in a new country, that country will benefit as these kids are less likely to need aid and more likely to provide their own livelyhoods.

How is your innovation unique?

Suitcase Stories is unique as it's a cost effective, easy to implement solution that adresses varies problems at once through a fun and vibrant process that not only impacts the participants, but the community and anyone around the world that want's to see it.

What are some of your unanswered questions about the idea?

some possible issues/questions - Are camp volunteers capable of running Suitcase Stories successfully or do we need tot send specialists and/or train them face to face - The program ran by Treehouse Theatre is evaluated as successful and of great impact to its stakeholders. however this is only run in Australia, thus after the ( spacial) journey of refugees have been completed. will it be as successful if it's implemented during this journey ( in refugee camps) isn't tested yet.

Tell us more about you.

I'm a master student ( business) in Sydney, Australia. I work part time as a self-employed choreographer and dance teacher and I'm very interested in the Performing Arts as a social-transformative tool in any field. For one of my subjects this semester I observed an organisation called Threehouse Theatre, Which is the one in Western Sydney ( Liverpool) that runs Suitcase Stories through high schools and IEC. This is a non-for-profit independant organisation.

What is the primary type of emergency setting where your innovation would operate?

  • Prolonged displacement

Emergency Setting - Elaborate

Suitcase Stories sets around high refugee areas, therefore most suited emergency settings are Refugee Camps and Asylum centres. I think that it could also work in conflict areas as long as there as a 'safe space' somewhere to run the gatherings.

Where will your innovation be implemented?

I'm not enough of an expert to estimate in which refugee area Suitcase Stories will be most succesfull.

Experience in Implementation Country(ies)

  • No, not yet.

In-country Networks


Sector Expertise

  • I've worked in a sector related to my innovation for less than a year.

Sector Expertise - Elaborate

I have a bachelor in education and dance and 5+ years experience as a dance, musical theatre and vocal trainer to youth aged 4 - 22 in the private and school sectors. Treehouse Theatre has been running their refugee programs for 5+ yeras

Innovation Maturity

  • Existing Prototype or Pilot: I have tested a part of my solution with users and am iterating.

Organization Status

  • We are a registered non-profit, charity, NGO, or community-based organization.

Organization Location

Treehouse Theatre is based in Liverpool, Sydney at Miller HighSchool and the Miller Intensive English Center. I'm personally based in Sydney as well.



Join the conversation:

Photo of Madiha Ahmed

Jolien Dirven Wow ! Such an interesting idea ! Thank you for sharing.

So you are suggesting that:
-Each suitcase would have material for the Story-telling for Change project. (I did a +Acumen course in partnership with The Ariel Group-
-Young people can either be trained or guided to make the most of it and share their story.
-These stories would influence people and encourage them to support the refugees.
Is that correct ?

Would this require a lot of technical as well as theatrical expertise ? Would it be financially feasible ?
Would young people get attracted to this idea because of the opportunity to be popular or to be impactful ?
Would a project like this demand a lot of space (if theatre or dance is the main idea) ?

I am really curious to know more !

Photo of Jolien Dirven

Hi Madiha Ahmed,
Thanks for your response. I will try to clarify all of your points.
- Every location that will run the program will get one large suitcase, a stage mat and a ' manual' ( will have to be developed). In the big suitcase will be many small suitcases, i'm thinking foldables so that there can be around 50 in there, enough to run 2 programs. ( They could run silmultaniously if many teenagers are interested in joining). These small cases will be empty: the participants can fill their own suitcase with artefacts, notes, personal items etc. that are part of their story. These can be imbedded in the script and used in the the performance, but that's up to the participants. Either way it will be a memory of the process that they can hold on to ( as a performance isn't an artefact you can frame and hang above your head). I looked at the story telling for change project, the 'storytelling techniques' are defenitely part of this because those are key elements to acting and performing that the refugees will learn as part of this process.
- it's not so much about training, it's more about learning through sharing stories, acting and performing them which is a process that will enhance a lot of skills, help heal trauma, build confidence, self-awareness and hope and a sense of belonging. So to come to the next point: this process has 2 goals, the refugee's process is the main one, but by sharing the results you do influence people and educate them. By performing it in their wider community say in the refugee camp / asylum centre the audience also get's that sense of belonging and could be inspired to tell their story. By filming and broadcasting it it could reach wider audiences in the first world who would than be educated and changed in their perspective on refugees and perhaps ultimately support refugees. But the core is the therapeutic, skill enhancing and wellbeing for the participants.
Former participants can than be mentors in the next program to support the new participants or maybe ultimatly run the program themselves.

The current shape relies havily on human capital ( theatrical, counseling) and only requires the suitcase/stagefloor as physical props. It doesn't require technical expertise at all. Perhaps the filming/broadcasting part.
It's is defintely financially viable. To start the program I would employ some professional Directors/theatre makers and counselors to create the manual and run the first programs in different places, where each of them can teach locals to run the program themselves ( leaern them how to fish, don't just give the fish )either as volunteers or paid.
Suitcase Stories is very cost - effective and impacts many stakeholders.

the space it would require is the measurements (length and width) of a standard stage/ rehearsal room. 40 m2 on average would be fine. The thing is there is no requirement for a room perse, it could be a tent or just a piece of land/gras on which the stagefloor-mat can be layed on.

if you have any more questions, please let me know :)


Photo of Ashley Tillman

Hi Jolien Dirven thank you very much for your beautifully written post! To make sure I understand correctly, you do not work with Tree House Theatre? If no, have you considered reaching out to Treehouse Theatre to co-create a proposal for this Challenge?

Looking forward to learning more!

Photo of Jolien Dirven

Hi Ashely Tillman,
Thanks for your response.
I have visited Treehouse Theatre, interviewed the founders, witnessed a rehearsal and a performance as part of my research, but I don't work for them.
Basically they run these 14 week rehearsals with the refugees through the IEC in Western Sydney, where they tell their stories ( supervised by a counselor ) which than get's turned into a script and staged by the director and performed at the end of the rehearsal period. I would call this the 'core element of the proposal.
I recently watched the performance and it was very powerful, both for the refugee's and for the audience. I really believe in this concept and the positive impact it has and therefore I would like to either collaborate with Threehouse or ( with their permission ) copy the core concept and implement it within my concept
Which is distinguishes from their programs on the following points:

- the application of this process in different contexts ( refugee camps/ asylu centers ),
-A greater scale
- create a ' suitcase' package with the big and small cases, the Stage mat and manual.
- broadcasting the performance ( film, can be in any shape from documentary to social media),

I will definetely notify Treehouse Theatre on my ideas and see if they are interested to collaborate!