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A STORY OF HOPE

"I was walking down Devon Avenue when I first found FORA, and when I came in Michael [FORA’s co-founder] talked to me and welcomed me with a big smile. I saw students being taught one-on-one, and I saw people who were like myself, new to this country. I was so happy … my son, Mahdi, needed this organization.”


In her own words and with translation help from her young-adult daughter, Mahdi’s mother describes FORA as an organization that provides academic support to students who can’t get such help from their parents (because the parents are new to this country, language, and education system). When Mahdi first came to FORA, he was in fourth grade. He could not speak English well and avoided going to school — the language and communication barrier was so discouraging to him, preventing him from succeeding socially or academically.

 

But after just two or three months of being at FORA, Mahdi’s mom clearly noticed a large improvement; despite having been far behind his peers, Mahdi’s grades improved and he started to catch up to his grade level. Additionally, his new English proficiency allowed him to make friends in a way he hadn’t been able to before. Other than food, clothing and shelter, what more basic need is there for a child than friends?

 

In his mother’s opinion, part of Mahdi’s success came from the consistency of the tutoring. However, she believes that a larger part was from the mutual respect and honesty between students/parents and the staff, and the unwavering focus on what is best for each individual student. Mahdi’s mom explains how she got to observe this firsthand, as she would come to the FORA learning center with her son each day and stay during his sessions to work, with FORA’s help, on her own education.

The prioritization of her children’s education was particularly strong for Mahdi’s mom because their family was denied a robust education prior to being resettled in the United States. Although the family is ethnically Afghani, they were born in Iran, where they were considered to be “illegal” and were denied basic rights. Meanwhile, they could not live in Afghanistan due to the war there. “Afghanistan was not a safe place to be, so we preferred to live illegally in Iran rather than go back and be killed in the war,” explains Mahdi’s older sister. “But in Iran, we weren’t even considered human. [As refugees] you can’t get access to education, you can’t do basic things like get a SIM card for your phone, you can’t get a normal job...when you are born as an Afghan in Iran, you are born as a refugee.”

 

In 2012 the family moved to Turkey, where their quality of life did improve slightly, but formal education still was not an option due to their status. They applied for resettlement with the United Nations and then waited for a decision to be made. “We waited for the phone call for four years… and then it came — we found out that we would be going to America. We were so excited! It was the best day of my life,” says Mahdi’s older sister. “And now, since arriving, these have been the best three years of my life. When we were in Iran and Turkey, I was so limited, but now I have human rights and I can reach my goals. When we arrived in Chicago, I signed up for ELL courses at a local college, and I met many people in the same situation as me, as well as people who came to the United States as refugees and through their hard work are now so successful. And I realized that if they can do it, then so can I.”

After the family moved to a new home last year, FORA was too far away for Mahdi to attend daily tutoring sessions. “We tried to find something like FORA where we are now, but there was nothing like it,” Mahdi’s mother explains. However, when COVID struck in March and FORA went virtual, they received a call from FORA asking if Mahdi wanted to re-enroll, and he has been receiving tutoring over Zoom — a silver lining to the pandemic. “He was bored and had nothing to do since he couldn’t meet up with his friends,” explains Mahdi’s mom. “But now he again receives two hours of tutoring each day, and Mahdi is so happy to have this connection again.” Mahdi describes what he currently enjoys reading with his tutor -- a book about the ancient Mayan city of Chichen Itza, as well as the popular Big Nate series.

When asked about what else FORA does in the community, Mahdi’s sister is quick to respond with a recent story. “FORA did a very important thing for me by introducing me to a very good doctor,” she says. After suddenly developing a severe stutter while taking college classes (in English, a newly-adopted language), Mahdi’s sister felt overwhelmed and didn’t know what to do. Her mother says, “I am the mother, but I couldn’t help my daughter… my daughter was crying and so ashamed, and I didn’t know how to help, so I messaged Michael saying that my daughter had ‘lost her tongue!’” Little did the family know that Michael had a deep understanding of how a stutterer feels, because he has been one all of his life.

Sometimes things just work out. Call it chance, or call it kismet. In any case, Mike has a close relationship with one of the world’s top speech pathologists who specializes in stuttering. She had helped Mike and other O’Connor family members in the past. One call to her, and she was willing to provide Mahdi’s sister with extensive speech therapy free of charge. What a gift to both FORA and to Mahdi’s family! Mahdi’s sister says, with no sense of exaggeration in her voice, “it has changed my life.” She concludes that what makes FORA special is that it not only provides academic support, but it also lifts its students up, encouraging them to set big goals for the future and helping them to achieve their dreams. As for us, we at FORA are so excited to see what awaits for this very special family.