THE HISTORY OF FORA
In the mid-2010s, when the Rohingya crisis was initially receiving international attention, we —the founding board members of FORA—wanted to play our part in welcoming these refugees into the United States. To accomplish this goal, we became a part of local organizations’ refugee and asylee welcoming teams. Over the course of the past decade, we have hosted more than a dozen asylum seekers in our home. Furthermore, we also welcomed scores of refugees by personally meeting them at O’Hare International Airport and preparing in advance for their initial living situations. These asylum seekers flourished in the United States. The refugees, most of whom were Rohingya, faced significant challenges, but their determination was truly inspirational. Not only were we struck with their plight, but we also admired their resourcefulness and generosity of spirit toward us. As more and more Rohingya individuals came to the United States and settled in the West Ridge neighborhood of Chicago, we gained their trust, fostered long-lasting connections, and were privileged to see these families have the opportunity to rebuild their lives in America.
However, it quickly became apparent that the Rohingya children we were getting to know were sinking at school with overwhelmed parents unfamiliar with the US education system. As their friends, the numerous refugee mothers demanded that we take action.
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 Head of the HDT Program at FORA—was a great professor and teacher. She is a specialist in the educational field. Professor O’Connor earned a doctorate in child development psychology with a focus on educational reform for marginalized youth. Similar to parents across the world, these immigrants 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 local parks. While our efforts felt gratifying, we acknowledged that they did not recognize the true need at hand. So in January 2019, we established Forging Opportunities for Refugees in America (“FORA”), a non-profit organization aimed at helping refugees achieve the American Dream.
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 for 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 created together.
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 needed to succeed in school.. However, they possess great dedication to receive an education. 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, Afghanistan, Syria, Ukraine, etc. So we decided to locate right where the need was the greatest. Our non-profit has grown incredibly over the past years. We currently have a waiting list for refugees seeking to receive tutoring at FORA. Additionally, we have a flood of Afghan refugees that have arrived over the past year. While we have 16 Afghan refugees in our program right now, we will be taking in 26 more Afghan refugees in the coming weeks. Many of these refugees have poor reading skills, especially the girls.
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 impractical 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 but also to thrive.
Most of our refugee children initially do not perform well in school, because they cannot read, write, or do basic math problems. 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. In recent years, refugee resettlement experts have seen an overwhelmingly large number of refugees who are illiterate. 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.
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. As of 2023, we work with 75 students with a two-to-one student ratio! At FORA, we provide daily after-school tutoring to help refugee children catch up to grade level so that school becomes meaningful. We provide more than 40,000 of yearly individualized tutoring to more than 80 refugee children, and the results are fantastic. The key to our success is High Impact Tutoring, a one-on-one program with individualized learning plans and hundreds of trained volunteer tutors. Due to our individualized lessons, caring staff members, and dedicated tutors, FORA students' reading skills grew 3.4 times more than what would be expected in an average year. Our students' math skills grew 2.64 times more than would be expected in an average year. Currently, Suellen de Barros, a PHD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is the head of our High Impact Tutoring Program. At FORA, we continue to have positive results regarding our students' academic progress. More importantly, we treated these students as individuals, as well as with patience and respect. It is important to show our kids how much we value them and the amount of confidence we have in their capabilities. Without immigrants, there would be no America.
In early 2020, COVID contributed to feelings of desperation and loneliness. The pandemic negatively affected our refugee students who were physically isolated, reminding many of their time spent in refugee camps. Thus, we decided that we needed to "step up" in ways we had not before imagined, so we started recruiting volunteers and interns across the country to help FORA adjust to virtual learning! During the pandemic, we were able to tutor an additional 30 students via Zoom. In order to help even more refugees, we recently acquired a new building, the former Northtown library branch, which is nearly four times the size of our current rental space and is located right next-door. This new space will allow us to accept more refugees off the waiting list and ensure that our center remains within walking distance for the many children and families we serve.
Although we have helped many students learn how to read, write, and successfully complete math questions, our most meaningful statistic revolves around child happiness. In 2021, we asked parents, “Is your child happy at school?” During this year, only half of FORA parents reported that their child was happy. In 2022, after attending FORA sessions every day, 93% of our students were happy or extremely happy at school.
At FORA, we believe literacy is a human right, and we are committed to restoring that right to refugee children. With our staff members, interns, volunteers, donors, and High Impact Tutoring program, we are able to provide our refugee students with the academic and emotional support needed for success. Most importantly, thank you. Together, we are Forging Opportunities for Refugees in America!