OUR CORNER OF CHICAGO
Why has a small corner of Chicago called West Ridge emerged as the hub of a national movement to address the unique challenges facing illiterate refugees? And why shouldn’t like-minded folk of good heart simply focus on working in their own neighborhoods to address this issue instead of investing in West Ridge?
In America, we have a pithy saying that says to “think globally but act locally.” And we encourage you to think globally. Think about what is happening in Afghanistan to women and girls right now, with no international reporters there to report on the carnage and think about the 750,000 Rohingya housed in revolting refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, with virtually no one even knowing about their plight.
But when you want to act locally, you look around and you see very few Rohingya Muslims or Afghan girls or Nepali-speaking Bhutanese or South Sudanese refugees who need your help. And the reason why is that there are so few let into the United States in the first place. And when they are let in then they are intentionally dispersed throughout the country.
But what is amazing that is happening in our little corner of West Ridge, Chicago, is that so many of the refugees who have been deliberately scattered throughout the country are now coming to our very special, little corner of the globe.
They are coming to our neighborhood for a reason. Because West Ridge has abundantly invited refugees since the 1920s. First German refugees after World War One. Then Jewish refugees after the Holocaust. Then Pakistani and Indian refugees after the 1947 Partition. And on and on. Croatian refugees after the Balkan Wars. And now Rohingya refugees. While approximately only 8,000 Rohingya refugees have been let into the United States in the past 20 years, there are 400 Rohingya families living within walking distance of FORA’s two empowerment centers. Approximately 2,000 people. Approximately 25% of all Rohingya in the United States are living in this neighborhood.
And that is why our local West Ridge, Chicago, issue is really a national issue. And – talking about bringing the world to our doorstep -- because of the presence of an already-established welcoming Muslim population, in recent weeks Afghans who have escaped their country’s collapse are settling here as well.
Because of the dense cluster of refugees located in this historic locale, politicians who specialize in refugee placements are closely watching West Ridge to see if these formerly illiterate refugees merely survive or thrive. We are not exaggerating as to the number of “eyes” on us. We regularly have visitors from all over the country and the world. In fact, the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees visited West Ridge before the pandemic and met local government and school officials as well as with some parents of FORA children specifically about their education.
We want to make sure (all our volunteers want to make sure) that these formerly preliterate refugees thrive, and we have a plan. We are proving concept and starting to scale up, and then we are going to demand to be noticed. We will ensure that national and international politicians who are looking at our neighborhood come to understand that their cynicism about the prospects of illiterate refugees is misplaced because of what has been accomplished in this historic corner of Chicago called West Ridge. We will not give up on the international politicians and will appeal to their better angels; they will, someday soon, see, with new eyes, the potential in the more than a million illiterate refugees now trapped in refugee camps around the world. They will see in these refugees what we see so clearly and obviously – that they are humans, like us, worthy of being given a fighting chance to resettle in a place in which they will be safe and can shape the narrative arcs of their own lives. Confronted by the obvious, how could anyone believe otherwise?