A STORY OF RESILIENCE
Quickly establishing herself as one of the most enthusiastic nine year olds I have ever met, FORA student Nurshafidah needs minimal prompting as she excitedly jumps from story to story about her time at FORA, as her parents look on and her little brother, Hamza, plays in his mother’s lap. Nurshafidah is clearly running this interview, with the following quotes fired in rapid succession.
“The first time I ever walked in I was like ‘Wow!’ We each have our own boxes and we can get help from all of the tutors, and my grades were, like, kind of bad but then they started to get better. I like FORA because it’s fun and we learn a lot of new things. And sometimes we have celebrations like a pizza party or a movie!” “Well, Suwaiba is my favorite tutor because she’s fun and lets us do everything! Every day [pre-COVID], Suwaiba picked up the students at our houses and we all walked together and talked on our way to FORA…” “When we’re at FORA, we play games and read books together and do our homework, and I see my friends. On my first day at FORA I made a new friend and we were having fun and talking and we realized that many of the same things that had happened to me had also happened to her...we couldn’t believe it!”
A particularly special memory for Nurshafidah’s family was FORA’s final gathering before COVID-19 precipitated the transition to online tutoring. “We were celebrating because my family got our [U.S.] citizenship!” Nurshafidah explains proudly. This is an enormous milestone for anyone, but citizenship holds a particular importance to Rohingya families who, due to religious and political persecution, were and are denied citizenship in their own home country of Myanmar/Burma, rendering them stateless since birth.
“In Burma I only finished the seventh grade,” explains Nushafidah’s mother, whose name is being withheld for privacy. “So the most important things we wished for were good educational opportunities for Nurshafidah and Hamza. We wanted them to have the opportunities we never had, and now we get to in a way live through our children. We know the hardships that come from not having a good education.” However, despite the fact that Nurshafidah was enrolled in Chicago Public Schools, she was far behind her grade level and needed additional help to bridge the gap. The reason for the gap was not a mystery. In the country where Nurshafidah was born after her parents fled from Myanmar/Burma, she could not attend school, as her family was undocumented. But her family is determined that this generation will be the first in which they will not be denied a robust education. The denial of basic rights for this family stops here and now, in West Ridge Chicago in the middle of the first century of the new millennium.
Last year, Nurshafidah’s father, who runs a small grocery store, found out about FORA from members of the community. “We knew that FORA had a good reputation in our community, and we knew they did good things to help both parents and kids,” Nurshafidah’s mother explains. “We have a Burmese store, and when people would come to our store, we heard from everyone who goes to FORA that they help the adults learn English and they do a good job of helping the kids [with reading and math]. Also, the location was very convenient.” In FORA’s original location, the family didn’t even have to cross the street to get to tutoring. Now, with the new location on California Avenue, it’s just a bit further — a four minute walk — but it’s still easy to get the kids there and home. The program is great, but the key that unlocks the opportunity is FORA’s community-based location.
“[Since starting at FORA,] we have seen an obvious improvement in grades…Nurshafidah went from B’s and C’s to now A’s and B’s,” says Nurshafidah’s mother. However, her daughter is not the only one who has made significant progress. Through attending FORA’s adult ESL classes, the mother has also made strides in her English literacy. “It makes a big difference for us to know our ABC’s,” she explains. “We had taken some fundamental English classes provided by the U.N., but it’s a completely different situation when you arrive here in the US and have to do everything in English. To run our store, we have to read so many letters, documents, and bills. We used to rely on our phones for translating, but now we don’t need to do that as much anymore.”
Additionally, the US citizenship test was a particularly important goal of the family’s ESL education — among other requirements, in order to pass the test applicants must demonstrate the ability to read, write, speak, and understand English. Explaining that many refugee adults do not speak English, often due to a lack of resources, the mother is very grateful that FORA provided free lessons to her and her family and emphasizes the life-changing nature of such programs being available to refugees.
When asked about their aspirations for the future, the little brother, Hamza, happily announces his dream of becoming a pilot; the mother smiles and says that she would like for Nurshafidah to continue her education and become a doctor. But Nurshafidah interjects, saying that she has a different dream — she hopes to become a teacher so that she can someday teach kids in the same way that she has been taught at FORA.