With decades of cumulative experience working with refugees, FORA’s founders observed that recently-arrived adult refugees to the Chicago area were rapidly able to become economically self-sufficient. However, children in refugee families were struggling to succeed in school. Many recent refugees, including more than half of Rohingya and Bhutanese refugees, do not know English and are illiterate even in their primary language. For adult illiterate refugees, basic reading and ESL classes in Chicago are often provided only during working hours, too far away from home, and without child care. Meanwhile, many undereducated refugee children – unable to read in any language or to do basic math -- are in the untenable position of entering school in a grade far above their academic capabilities. Their parents are not able to help to fill the children’s educational gaps or even to navigate the educational bureaucratic maze.
After years searching for a safe place to live where they can give hope to their children, many refugee parents arrive in the United States only to see their children despair at ever succeeding in school. We can help.
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.
We have recently opened our first learning center in the heart of Chicago's Little India. Although we serve refugees of all nationalities, our classes are currently overflowing with recently-arrived Rohingya refugees, originally from Burma, who are making the area their new home. This ethnic group is characterized by the extreme hardship they have faced in Burma and during the many years most have spent as refugees in Thailand or Malaysia. Although many of them 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 Afganistan. So we decided to locate right where the need was the greatest. As they say, “location, location, location!” Not only are refugees of all nationalities coming to our program, but they are also flourishing. We are located at 2709 W. Devon Ave. in Chicago. Come see for yourself!