“Honestly, for college they have services for everyone...but I'm not everyone. ‘Everyone’ means the people who were born here, who know the languages and know the education system. But I wasn't. I was unique. I did not know that much English. I did not know the systems. These systems were not enough for me. When I came, I didn’t know the language and I didn’t know anything about higher education – colleges and universities. Refugees need an organization to talk with us, to guide and help us to move forward and get into school. I have many, many refugee friends who never found this sort of organization to connect them to their education in the United States, so they stopped going to school. And they are so regretful of their decision, and they are so sad about that. I was lucky enough to find FORA, and now I am a junior at University of Illinois Chicago studying biology. I think there needs to be more organizations like this... everywhere.” -- Fereshteh
Twenty-three years old, Fereshteh has already lived in three countries, speaks four languages, and is a joyful fashionista and aspiring doctor. She was also an Afghan refugee — a status that has impacted her life trajectory since before her birth, when the Taliban forced her father out of his city under the threat of death. Barred from returning to their homeland, Fereshteh and her three younger siblings were born as refugees, living first in Iran and then in Turkey. However, neither country provided refugees with the basic human right to education, a right that Fereshteh’s parents desperately wanted — as any parents would — for their children.
But even after being resettled in the United States, the dream of a robust education still eluded Fereshteh, who was 18 years old when her family emerged from the doors of O’Hare Airport into their new homeland. As she was too old to be placed in grade school with her younger siblings, her only other option was to enroll at the local community college, despite having been previously denied a consistent and meaningful access to education, which was all that most of her new peers had ever known.
"I took the placement test and I started at Truman College as a freshman,” Fereshteh explains. “The first year was very exhausting and very overwhelming. I did not know the language. I did not know the environment. I had to take full-time classes because I wanted to finish at the right time. But I did not know what classes I should take. I did not know that each score that I was getting was going to affect my final grade. It was very hard at the beginning.”
However, in 2019 Fereshteh’s family stumbled upon FORA in their neighborhood. Fereshteh was paired with a volunteer tutor, Doug Burke, who happened to be a STEM professor at Malcolm X College. Through daily, one-on-one tutoring with Doug at FORA, Fereshteh’s grades, language abilities, and confidence soared. "A lot of things changed," says Doug, "but her dedication was one thing that didn't. She was so determined right from the beginning... and it made her so happy when she saw she could succeed."
A very humble person stepped into the gap and another’s life was changed for the better. There is no “magic recipe.” This is the only way it happens.
Two years later, Fereshteh had earned her associate’s degree with honors — an incredible achievement further proving her tenacity. She was determined and ready to transfer to a four-year university to complete her bachelor’s degree, and with support from two amazing FORA women who served as mentors -- and who were there for every application, essay, interview, and recommendation -- Fereshteh was accepted into multiple universities.
Today, Fereshteh is a junior at University of Illinois at Chicago and is a paid member of the FORA outreach staff, most recently playing an important role in translating for newly arrived Afghan students. Wanting to empower the next generation of refugee students to joyfully reach their academic potential in the way that she herself was empowered, Fereshteh spent this past summer as a Senior Educational Fellow at FORA, tutoring young students each day. And when at the end of August, Afghanistan heartbreakingly fell to the very oppressors that had driven out her own family, Fereshteh was not only the first to call for FORA to respond, but also served as FORA's media representative when we were asked by NBC News to speak on this issue. Closely familiar with the brutality of the Taliban and the injustice of denial of education being used as a weapon of oppression against women, Fereshteh's interview brought the FORA team to tears. (View interview at www.tinyurl.com/epvewsek )
Since the day FORA opened our doors, we have stood firmly in our belief that education and literacy are human rights. So, we cannot understate how inspiring it is to have young, world-changing advocates such as Fereshteh in our midst — showing us all every day the bright future that awaits when female refugees are restored the rights that are theirs.