HISTORY OF FORA
In the mid-2010s, when the Syrian and Rohingya crises were receiving international attention, we — the founding board members of FORA — wanted to play our part in welcoming these refugees into the United States, so we became a part of local organizations’ refugee and asylee welcoming teams. We had hosted more than a dozen asylees in our home over the course of the past decade, and we welcomed scores of refugees by meeting them at O’Hare International Airport and preparing in advance for their initial living situations. The asylees flourished in the United States. The refugees, most of whom were Rohingya, struggled but had great resolve. We were struck with not only their plight but also by their resourcefulness and their generosity of spirit toward us. As more and more Rohingya came to the United States and settled in the West Ridge neighborhood of Chicago, we gained trust, built up lasting ties, and were privileged to see these families start to build their new lives in America.
However, it quickly became apparent that the Rohingya children we were getting to know were sinking at school, and their parents were overwhelmed, not knowing how to help their own children. We researched the local educational landscape and found that there were adult ESL classes and child tutoring services for refugees in various locations throughout Chicago. However, most free ESL programs were too far away for daily attendance to be reasonable, or took a casual approach, offering classes only two or three times a week or on a drop-in basis, without clearly-defined educational strategies, and with very high student-teacher ratios. As their friends, the numerous refugee mothers demanded that we do something.
The refugee mothers were so strident in their demands, not only because they were desperate, but because they knew Kathleen O’Connor, who is now the President of FORA, was a great professor and teacher. In fact, she is a specialist in the field. Professor O’Connor earned a doctorate in child development psychology and has a focus on educational reform for marginalized youth. Like parents the world over, these parents were looking to leverage their relationships to help their kids. So they did... and the founding board members and our children were tutoring more than a dozen students in students’ cramped living rooms, on their front stoops, in their back alleys, and in local parks. Our individual efforts felt gratifying but were not at all organized to meet the true need. So in January 2019, we incorporated Forging Opportunities for Refugees in America (“FORA”), found a building space to serve as our educational empowerment center, and we opened our doors.
All of what we do at FORA unfolded organically. We had by no means planned on doing any of this with our lives, but it happened nonetheless, solely because we were responding to the needs of the community as voiced, over and again, by local mothers.
We are tremendously proud of how hard our students have worked to improve their reading and math skills. But we are also proud and grateful of how our staff has inspired the kids and how much joy they have infused into the learning experience at FORA. The positive atmosphere of our learning center cannot be described succinctly, but it is telling that we regularly attract visitors who are drawn in off the street as they pass by. The happy energy and active learning are palpable even through the windows of our storefront, with visitor after visitor saying that our storefront “glows." Nobody can resist the joy of helping a child learn to read — and that joy resounds throughout the welcoming space that we have together created.
OUR STUDENTS AND NEIGHBOR-HOOD
Although we serve refugees of all nationalities, our classes are currently overflowing with recently-arrived Rohingya refugees from Myanmar, who are making the area their new home. Although many of these students speak multiple languages, they tend to lack basic literacy and numeracy skills and have minimal English. However, they have great dedication to education and capacity to learn. In addition, there are numerous refugees from various other countries who need to be served in the area, including, for example, refugees from Bhutan, Pakistan and Afghanistan. So we decided to locate right where the need was the greatest.
Refugee communities understandably try to settle in relatively inexpensive but safe and welcoming neighborhoods. One such neighborhood in Chicago is “Little India,” the corridor around W. Devon Avenue in West Ridge, where families arriving from around the world have found shelter since World War I. Unfortunately, despite good housing and welcoming neighbors, inadequate public transportation and overwhelming traffic make it impracticable to reach outside-of-neighborhood services like ESL classes and after-school tutoring on weekdays.
What is our solution? FORA meets refugees where they live, during the hours they are available. Our name reflects our strategy. We do not want to have one massive “forum,” or educational marketplace, for the gathering of refugees, but, rather, numerous “fora” (the plural of “forum”) throughout the city, where refugees can access the support they need not merely to survive by also to thrive.
Many of the refugees whom we serve have spent years or even decades in refugee camps and have been barred from attending school in their home countries for at least the past 50 years. As a result, a large proportion of the refugees we serve are illiterate in their native language. When they come to the United States, they are able to learn to speak English very quickly, as most of the people we work with already fluently speak three to five languages. However, the children often do not do well in school because they cannot read or do basic math in any language, and
upon public school enrollment, they are placed in grade levels by age, despite being years behind in learning. This challenge of meeting the specific academic needs of pre-literate refugee students has not been taken up by others — while there are many homework centers, we know of no other organization that provides this sub-group with daily and deeply individualized instruction in the foundational skills of reading and math. (Others seem hesitant to publicly address issues faced by illiterate refugees for fear of public blowback in accepting them into the U.S.)
Pre-literate refugees are a group that are usually ignored in educational reform conversations, dismissed as an insignificant outlier. This is a mistake. Refugee resettlement experts have in recent years seen an overwhelmingly large number of refugees who are illiterate, and Myanmar is an especially shocking example of why we need to understand the contexts from which refugees flee in order to understand the challenges they might face. In 1982, the Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic minority of more than one million people in Myanmar, were declared non-citizens by the country’s oppressive military junta and were denied freedom of movement beyond their local villages, thereby denying them educational and health services. Throughout the subsequent decades, the Rohingya were horribly persecuted and fled from Myanmar in droves. This persecution culminated in 2017’s systemic burning of hundreds of Rohingya villages, leading to the flight of more than 750,000 Rohingya from Myanmar to Bangladesh, where approximately 850,000 Rohingya currently live in squalid conditions in Cox’s Bazar, the largest cluster of refugee camps in the world.
With only 17% of males and 6% of females able to read basic text in Burmese (their primary written language), the Rohingya, as an ethnic group, have a lower literacy rate than that of any country in the world. Many countries simply do not want to accept pre-literate refugees, and adding Islamophobia to the mix, most countries bar their doors completely. However, we at FORA seek to demonstrate that through educational empowerment, pre-literate refugees can indeed thrive here in their new homeland.
Led by a child developmental psychologist who specializes in academic reform, FORA provides the educational scaffolding needed for these children to succeed at school and in life. In our first year, 2019, we worked with 30 students with a two-to-one student-teacher ratio, and we had amazing, statistically significant, results. More importantly, we treated these students as individuals and with patience and respect, demonstrating to them how much we value them and how much confidence we have that they will not only thrive in the United States but that they will make this nation even stronger. With success comes challenges. As news of FORA spread, our waitlist grew to more than 50 students, and we had to shut down our waitlist within a month of opening.
In early 2020, COVID hit the whole world hard, and our refugee students once again became physically isolated, reminding many of their time in the refugee camps. Thus, we decided that we needed to "step up" in ways we had not before imagined, so we put out a call for online volunteers and were successful, allowing us to pair all of our 2019 students with online tutors, using pedagogically sound reading and math software platforms. However, we also felt that given the extremely negative impact of isolation on newly-arrived refugee children, that it was also imperative to start taking children who were on our waitlist. Thanks to the enthusiasm of volunteers from all around the country, during COVID we have been able to take an additional 30 students and are now up to 60 students who receive one-on-tutoring every weekday.