Letter from the President,
Pictured: Simran Arora, Parent/School Partnership Program Coordinator; Kathleen O'Connor, Ph.D., Educational Programs Director; Farah Noor Chema, M.D., President; Lauren Kearns, Chief of Staff
Dear FORA Family,
The past two years have been challenging, with most of us isolated in our homes. But we survived. We rediscovered unused exercise bikes, tuned into the most recent Netflix shows, and, after much struggle, mastered Zoom. And with 2021 soon ending, we look forward to turning the page on the pandemic and to beginning life anew, committed to resolutions to live joyously expansive lives.
I have learned how fragile we humans are and how we all live closer than formerly thought to societal collapse. And, of course, some of us live in societies that have actually – without exaggeration – collapsed; I can only imagine how women and girls now feel in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. While I was secure in my house, hibernating with my electronic gadgets, so many people were losing jobs, without health insurance, hungry, and dying. Others were literally losing their countries.
This reality focuses my attention on the most vulnerable – those without either a home or a country – our brothers and sisters who are refugees, fleeing for their lives to seek shelter in squalid, disease-filled camps.
Shockingly, in 2020, there were almost 21,000,000 U.N.-protected refugees. Although almost all these refugees face challenging futures, refugees who are illiterate face the direst fates. Potential host countries, simply put, are afraid to welcome the illiterate. And because of repressive governments who are using the denial of an education as a weapon of oppression, the number of illiterate refugees is immense and growing.
The top five countries from which refugees have fled – composing 36% of all U.N.-protected refugees -- are: Syria, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Myanmar and Somalia. All these countries face great social instability. Other than Syria, all these countries also face a disastrous literacy crisis. Afghanistan has an adult literacy rate of 43% (with an adult female rate of below 30%); Somalia has a 38% rate; and South Sudan has the lowest rate in the world at 27%. Meanwhile, the Rohingya -- forced out of Myanmar after purposely denied an education for four decades by the military junta — have a literacy rate of less than 20%! With 750,000 Rohingya trapped in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh for the past four years, international resettlement bureaucrats do not know what to do to help these most vulnerable members of our human race.
We, as a nation, are at a crossroads regarding this issue. The undecided among us reasonably asks, “what resources would we need to provide to these refugees to ensure that they thrive in the U.S.?” Many well-intentioned refugee-focused organizations try to avoid this question out of concern that our doors will be shut on these most persecuted of people if Americans knew that many refugees are illiterate.
But this is no time to play “hide and seek.” This is a moment for honesty, ideas and solutions. The people of the U.S. deserve the truth about what supports will be needed for illiterate refugees. Moreover, refugees themselves deserve for all people of good will to be given accurate information so that all can work towards solutions regarding the refugee illiteracy crisis.
I am haunted by the fate of refugees. I know that if my family were in a refugee camp because of political machinations beyond my control, I would pray that good-hearted people would work on well-researched plans for us to escape to safety. I would appeal to the humanity of people I didn’t even know for help to start life afresh. I would plead for compassion, justice and effective action. I would hope that somebody would hear my pleas. And I feel that this is what being human is all about -- calling upon each other when in need, listening for and to each other as brothers and sisters, and helping each other out of difficult circumstances. Of course, the issue of refugee illiteracy is only one of many important issues facing the world today. But is it the issue that most resonates with me, focusing my mind on what it is that we should expect of each other as fellow humans.
What is so encouraging to me is that we can respond effectively to this crisis. We can come up with scalable, replicable, pedagogically appropriate strategies to help a generation of persecuted, illiterate refugees thrive in America. Literacy is magical, but it is not magic. We were all once illiterate! And with a proper educational framework and dogged persistence, we can help illiterate refugees become literate, catch up to grade level, graduate from college or technical schools, get good jobs, and pursue their own American stories.
In the following pages, we provide a glimpse of what FORA does to make this refugee plea a reality. We work on the grassroots level, from the bottom up, but we also have both a vision regarding what the world, writ large, could and should look like and a tested strategy to move us forward towards such vision. I hope that you read on, that you are as inspired as I am, and that you give generously, of your time and of your resources. If you listen carefully, the most vulnerable among us are asking us to care about their present and invest in their futures. I am confident that the rate of return on our investment will be staggeringly large and reverberate through the generations. I am also convinced that this is, simply put, the right thing to do.
We, at FORA, truly believe in empowerment through education. It is, indeed, a slogan, but it is also our passion.
Farah Noor Cheema
President, Board of Directors