A STORY OF STRENGTH
(This FORA family does not want the names or images of the family’s adults publicly disclosed. The reason is simple. They are afraid about possible retribution against relatives who are still vulnerable back in their former homeland. We are not making pseudonyms for the adults because we know them for who they are, and any other names sound to us fake at best. So they are simply “mother” and “father” -- roles that they embrace and embrace so well. And to maintain consistency, we will call the 7 year old son and 6 year old daughter, “the children.”)
For reasons both known worldwide and that at the same time are highly personal, the years before coming to the United States were very difficult for this refugee Rohingya family. They suffered greatly prior to arriving here, and the family clearly does not want to dredge up these old memories, and neither do we. The mother softly but firmly sums up their lives prior to coming to the United States by suggesting “[t]here was a lot of unhappiness, and it was very disheartening to know that there was not much I could do about it.”
The parents had two children after leaving their homeland but prior to coming to the United States. They were living (under United Nations auspices) in a transition country, unable to become citizens there or move around freely or pursue fulsome employment. Because of their restricted status, this family of four was making and living on only $15 a day. The parents prayed that by the time their children were old enough to start school, they would be living in another country, a new homeland. Fortunately, this dream was realized and in early 2016 the family arrived in the United States and were granted a pathway to American citizenship. Thanks to a very helpful caseworker and the fact that they already had relatives living here, their transition was relatively smooth; above all, the mother felt grateful to be in a safe country where education for her children would be prioritized, and her family could practice their religion without fear of persecution.
The hardest part, however, was the language barrier. Navigating life in a new country without being able to speak the language was incredibly difficult, and the two children would come home from kindergarten and elementary school with homework and notices that the parents could not understand. As parents, they wanted their children to be happy at school and receive a good education, but the language barrier was preventing this from becoming a reality. The mother says, “we felt helpless in that position.” Anybody who is a parent and has hopes and dreams for their children would understand the painful depth of such concisely phrased sentiment.
Then, in the summer of 2019, the family found out about FORA from a friend whose son was already enrolled. They went through the application process and were accepted, and since then the change in the two children has been remarkable. “The kids get really excited about school and tutoring,” says their mother. When asked why she thinks this is, she answered that “a lot of it is about reciprocity. The kids can see how much care tutors put into FORA — they know that everyone is there to help them, so they are happy there. Also, the children really benefit from learning to read, which they enjoy, and everything is pinpointed to their individual needs. Plus, Michael is so enthusiastic about learning that they feel excited, too… they always want to hurry and get to tutoring on time!”
Since starting at FORA, the progress made has been stunning. “In terms of English and verbal skills, there has been a huge improvement,” says the mother. “[My son] was slower to talk in kindergarten [prior to joining FORA]; he was very quiet and didn’t speak very much. His grades were B’s, C’s and D’s. Now he is making A’s and B’s! He now understands and speaks English well.”
President of FORA, Kathleen O'Connor, recounts one of her favorite memories of working with these two children. “When the daughter began coming to FORA, she did not like being there; she did not want to talk with any of the tutors; and she did not want to read any book. I remember distinctly the first time she showed interest in any book...it was a small board book called ‘This Little Trailblazer’ with a cartoon picture of Malala wearing a hijab on the cover. The girl lit up all over when she saw a face that looked like her on the cover of a book. She wanted to read the book every time she came in. To me, this story was a great demonstration of how important culturally appropriate materials are for new readers.”
At the end of the interview, the mother told one final story that truly highlighted how valuable FORA has become to her family. “The ability to be settled somewhere and own a home feels to us like achieving the American Dream, and recently many of our friends began moving away to Milwaukee, because housing prices are better there. We were very torn over the thought of leaving and starting a new life in another state where we might be able to own our own home. But ultimately we decided to stay here in Chicago… because this is where FORA is.”
There is a picture of the children along with this article. That is because the parents have no fear that the children will somehow be recognized back in their former homeland as the children were not even born there. As it always does, the past moves further into the past. Not always though does the temporal distance allow for us to rebound. Being discriminated against can have such long-term repercussions. But as for these children, they are now flourishing! We at FORA know that the credit is all because of their parents. They have suffered much to get here and now they are leveraging opportunities so that their children can thrive. The past will not haunt these children, but will empower them. They will see how strong and adaptable their parents were while also holding onto the ideals that matter to their family. Their religion and their culture are very important to them, and in these regards we stand as allies.
Another ideal that they embrace is that of a robust education, and it is here that we can play a very active role. We at FORA are beyond grateful that these parents allow us into their lives and entrust their children to us for two hours a day, every day. It is among the highlights of our lives to know this family and to consider them to be our friends. And it is a high honor for us that they have allowed us to share their unfolding story.