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FORA's 2023 is One for the Books

FORA staff collaborates to ensure students are advocated for all year around. Photo by Chuck Berman. Aug. 2023.

After four years of operations, FORA has expanded in both educational and administrative departments. What was once a small initiative to assist a few refugee families with their educational needs is now a Chicago community-wide movement where hundreds of volunteer tutors come to advocate for the educational rights of 103 refugee students. 

Expanding the Movement 

At the start of 2023, FORA’s student wait-list overflowed with over one hundred families who wanted to join FORA. However, FORA couldn’t onboard any additional students due to limited space, staff members and the resources that ensured each student received one-on-one tutoring. 

Until July. 

This past summer, FORA was awarded a grant from the Jewish United Fund, which would allow FORA to welcome into our tutoring program over 20 new students, all of whom have been in the U.S for less than five years.

“I felt super excited about welcoming more students because this way, we would create new possibilities for these children while also proving the strength of our movement,” Suellen De Barros, FORA’s Head of High Impact Tutoring, said.


The newcomer students are from diverse backgrounds, and many had minimal prior classroom experience. However, FORA was prepared to advocate for their educational needs.

De Barros said the High Impact Tutoring team prepared individualized curriculums, learning plans, so “students and tutors would have information about the books, apps, and platforms preparing students to achieve their learning objectives, and academic excellence.”

Of the new students, seven spoke Arabic, seven spoke Rohingya, three spoke Burmese

and eleven spoke Pashto and Dari.

FORA’s ability to expand it’s program from 73 to 103 students in just a couple of months is a testament to staff’s willingness to adapt and serve more of Chicago’s refugee community.

“FORA staff and volunteers have such big hearts, knowing when we accept new students that the most important pre-conditions for student learning are joy and peace,” Michael O’ Connor, Managing Director of FORA, said. “Our team understands deeply that no child should have to be a superhero to access a robust education.” 

Community Outreach 

Since fall 2022, FORA recruited and welcomed about 130 new tutors to work with students each semester. Yet, as FORA moved into fall of 2023, over 200 additional tutors were needed to help maintain the one-to-one tutor to student ratio. 

By mid-September, FORA’s Outreach department recruited over 215 volunteers and Loyola Work Study tutors. 

Celeste Wroblewski, a volunteer tutor who started in January of 2023, said “FORA is an extraordinary place and gives you the privilege of working with people who are overcoming tough challenges while bringing joy to me and others.” 

From January to December, FORA welcomed a record-breaking 420 tutors to the tutoring program, and volunteer tutors completed approximately 11,927 hours of individualized tutoring. 

As a whole, nearly 48,000 hours of tutoring took place in 2023. These hours include volunteer tutors, Work Study tutors and general hours of tutoring. 

This feat is made possible each semester through partnerships with Loyola University Chicago, DePaul University, Northwestern University as well as devoted neighbors and local high schools. 

2023 also kicked off FORA’s first-ever Restorative Justice Internship Program. FORA’s revamped internship program allows young professionals to work in-depth with Chicago’s refugee community through FORA’s tutoring program while also gaining the opportunity to lead administrative projects and learn the daily operations of a grassroots nonprofit.

This past summer, FORA hosted over thirty interns from Cornell, Northwestern, University of Chicago, Loyola University Chicago, Bryn Mawr and a number of local high schools. 

As FORA expanded its tutoring program, it was the Restorative Justice Interns who jumped in to lead classrooms and spend nearly six hours of tutoring a day when FORA was low on tutors. 

Interns also constructed an interactive Google Map with over 150 organizations, highlighting potential recruitment partners. 

But it’s the students who bring many interns the most joy at FORA: 

“I loved getting to know the students here at FORA and watching them grow,” said Addison Feltman, a Restorative Justice intern studying at Northwestern University. “It is so inspiring and fulfilling to witness a student finally understand a tricky concept or simply say 'hi' and remember my name as they are passing by.”

FORA’s Family School Partnership Program 

At its core, the Family School Partnership Program (FSPP) connects FORA parents with their children's Chicago Public School (CPS) teachers and helps parents navigate the U.S education system, something unfamiliar to many newcomer families. 

With five new staff members assigned to FSPP in 2023, the department interacted with students, families, and schools on a record-breaking scale. 

Measured in the numbers of interactions completed with each respective group, FSPP staff members engaged in 339 interactions with students to check their grades and provide advice for navigating the CPS classroom, 222 meetings with FORA parents and 108 meetings with CPS teachers and administrators from September to December. 

This shows how consistently dedicated FORA staff is to advocating for students’ academic and emotional success. 

For FORA’s eighth grade students, FSPP staff held 59 meetings with parents and students to guarantee each student will go to the high school best suited for their needs. 

These meetings also shared information about the U.S education system to help parents navigate and advocate for their child’s education.

“The high school application process in Chicago can be challenging for parents and students, particularly for those who are navigating it for the first time, which is especially true for our refugee families who may not have had formal education before arriving in the U.S,” Syeda Siddiqua, FORA’s Deputy Head of FSPP, said. “Providing guidance to parents and students during the high school selection and application process is crucial as it empowers them and imparts valuable knowledge.” 

Recent Educational Metrics

FSPP is not only crucial to ensure parents feel supported but FSPP’s bi-weekly check-ins with students work hand-in-hand with FORA’s High Impact Tutoring to help guarantee each student’s educational and emotional needs are advocated for. As a result, FORA students improve basic literacy and numeracy skills at a rapid rate. 

According to FORA’s 2023 Annual Report, from June 2021 to June 2023, FORA’s student body jumped from the 15th to 58th percentile. 

In respect to reading skills, FORA students increased from the fifth percentile to the 23rd percentile from June 2021 to June 2023. 

Educational metrics from Jan. 2023 to Dec. 2023 haven’t been published yet. 

What do these metrics mean? 

Students are improving not only in school but also boosting their levels of confidence. 

“Seeing a student who was ashamed of their academic performance or embarrassed to say words in English now talk, smile and laugh with everyone at tutoring is the sign that tutoring is working,” De Barros said. “Improvement also means students have a sense of agency, comfort and belonging in their social lives at school or in the community.”

Educational Programs: Robotics and Model UN

In 2023, FORA continued providing students with extracurricular programs such as poetry writing, VEX Robotics and Model UN. 

FORA’s weekly robotics class, lead by volunteers Denis Roarty and Molly McAnespie, competed in two teams at their first competition against 31 other high school teams. 

Despite being new to the arena, both robotics teams made it to the semi-finals. 

The robotics program began again in the fall and will continue into 2024. 

In addition to VEX Robotics, FORA students honed in on their speech and debate skills through Model UN workshops led by Raza Zaidi and Katelyn Ryan. 

Zaidi began leading the classes in 2022 and has conducted 17 five-hour long Model UN workshops since.This past summer, Zaidi and Ryan guided students in a week-long summer camp to help FORA students from the ages nine through twelve enhance their public speaking skills. 

“This targeted age range is critical as research suggests that early exposure to public speaking significantly boosts confidence, engagement, community involvement, and leadership qualities,” Zaidi said. “Our curriculum is designed to gently nudge students out of their comfort zones, enabling them to become more effective and confident speakers.”

Zaidi said he is proud of the students’ improvement since the program’s start. 

“It is inspiring to hear students say that they ‘couldn't wait to tell their parents about their great speech’ and it is great to see the students work hard and strive to go out of their comfort zones,” he said. 

Growth of FORA’s Core Team

FORA’s community is ever-growing as FORA hired 11 core team members to push forth with its movement of combating refugee illiteracy. 

Of the hires, many are a part of the High Impact Tutoring (HIT) and the Family School Partnership Program (FSPP). 

Grace Zaki, hired in June as an Education Officer in HIT, said she has been most inspired by the impact of FORA’s inclusive spaces. 

“Growing up in Chicago has shown me the significance of having places where one feels a true sense of belonging, which is precisely what FORA provides for our students,” Zaki said. “It's incredible to see how FORA offers refugee students genuine acceptance and unwavering support, creating an environment where they can come as they are and learn without the fear of failure.”

Worldwide Recognition

As 2023 came to a close, FORA was selected as a finalist for the global .ORG Impact Awards. The nominees included over 1,000 organizations associated with a .org tag in their website from over 35 nations. 

“We were so honored to be among some of the most amazing people who we have ever met and to be given a generous donation in support of our work,” FORA said in an Instagram post. 

Looking Forward 

Last May, FORA received the keys to their future home, the old Northtown Library. Since then, the library has undergone demolition and preliminary construction. 

As FORA moves into 2024, student, staff and volunteer excitement is building with the move just around the corner. 

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