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CORE TEAM MEMBERS

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ARKHAWAN SALIH

Head of Office and Chief Operations Officer, arkhawans@refugeefora.org

Arkhawan Salih was born and grew up in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, then she immigrated with her family to the United States around a decade ago. She studied her Bachelor's degree in Law and Politics in Kurdistan. In Chicago, she gained a Master's degree in International Relations and Public Policy, and studied Data Science and visualization from Northwestern University. Both in Kurdistan and the United States, Arkhawan has worked in many national and international non-profit organizations on education and training, project management, human rights advocacy, refugee and immigrant rights and resettlement,  and legal/social justice programs. When she is out of work, she enjoys being a mother to two kids and watching them grow, hiking and camping with family and friends, and national and international traveling. In Chicago, she enjoys music symphonies, art exhibits and seasonal festivals and learning about the city and the country's historical sites and life. 

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DAVID MCKENZIE

Chief Administrative Officer, david@refugeefora.org

David McKenzie grew up in California and moved to Chicago more than 20 years ago. Possibly the only person who really loves the weather here, he enjoys taking long walks around the city, even when most people would much rather be indoors. David would like to spend more time at the Art Institute of Chicago and in Millennium Park, but he's pretty happy living in Logan Square because there are trees everywhere. He has a law degree and a degree in Chinese Studies. He has done a lot of different things over the years, from computer programming to sculpting, and spent many years running his own small manufacturing business, but he always says that FORA is by far the best and most rewarding work he's ever done.

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KATHLEEN O'CONNOR

Co-Founder and Educational Programs Director (Volunteer), kathleen@refugeefora.org

Kathleen O'Connor has spent her entire adult life teaching in diverse educational settings. She graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College with a degree in History. Afterwards she taught math in the Washington D.C. public schools, before earning a Masters’ in Education from Harvard University. She went on to earn a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology from Vanderbilt University where she worked developing math curricula and teaching both under-privileged middle school students and Vanderbilt undergraduates. She was awarded the Provost Fellowship in Educational Technology and the prestigious Master Teacher fellowship, which she used to study equity in undergraduate teaching. Upon graduation, she was awarded the Jules Seaman Award for scholastic, personal and professional achievement, and the Tennessee State Volunteer Award, recognizing her work with students from low-income families. She then moved to Madagascar where she worked as a volunteer English teacher with Malagasy orphans and as a full-time math and science teacher at the American School of Antananarivo. She later worked as an educational consultant in Belgrade and spent several years as an assistant professor of psychology at Dominican University, where the majority of her students were first generation college students. She was recently nominated by the American Red Cross for the 2022 Hero Award and in 2021 she was awarded the Valuing Difference Award for community activism and achievement by the Wingspan Project and Live Oak Chicago.  

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MICHAEL O'CONNOR

Co-Founder and Managing Director (Volunteer), michael@refugeefora.org

Michael O'Connor attended Amherst College and Harvard Law School, where he was President of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. While in school, he worked for Cesar Chavez and the U.F.W, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, the Southern Center for Human Rights, D.C. Public Defender Service, and the United States Department of Justice, Office of Policy Development. In the mid-to-late ’90s, he was a Senior Trial Attorney for the Civil Rights Division of the United States Department of Justice and an Associate Counsel to the President of the United States at the White House. He then was an international field worker for Catholic Relief Services in war-torn Madagascar and Kosovo and then served as Regional Director for South Asia for International Justice Mission, in which capacity he testified to a U.S. House of Representatives’ committee on issues of international human trafficking. Since 2007, he has been a portfolio manager in the financial industry.

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IRA JEANNE

HDT Education and FSPP Officer, iraj@refugeefora.org

Iradukunda Jeanne (Ira) was born and raised in a refugee camp in Tanzania. When she was nine years old, she and her family were forced to leave Tanzania, and they immigrated to the United States. Although she was scared to move to a place she knew nothing about, she knew the new life she was about to take on would bring numerous opportunities. Since arriving in the U.S., Ira has completed her Bachelor's degree in Mathematics at North Park University, where she gained experience as a Student Ambassador, Mentor, Residence Life Representative, and organizer for the Black Student Union. Determined to "pay forward" the support she received upon arriving in Chicago, Ira developed a passion for empowering other refugees, and through her involvement with the local nonprofit GirlForward, she found fulfillment in working with refugee youth and assisting those who have experienced discrimination and injustice. When she’s not working, Ira enjoys outdoor activities such as bike riding, jogging, and being by the beach. 

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FAZLULHAQ FAYEZ

HDT Education and FSPP Officer, fayezf@refugeefora.org

Fazlulhaq Fayez was born and brought up in Afghanistan and experienced war, internal displacement, and violence during childhood and adulthood, which made him decide to leave his country and migrate to the US in 2021 when everything collapsed in Afghanistan, to ensure his children would not experience what he went through. Back in Afghanistan, Fayez completed his Master's degree in Sociology and worked with the United Nations, USAID, and international NGOs including Oxfam and Save the Children on partnership and project management in areas of civil society organizational development, child rights promotion, and women's empowerment. With basic to no policy and procedures, Fayez supported around 15 organizations in creating written manuals to put Human Resource, Finance, and Child Safety policies in place, empowering them to work efficiently and effectively and reach a greater number of children and women in need. Fayez says, “FORA is a window of hope for new refugee children who struggle with different challenges they confront at school academically and psychologically. My son is in third grade here in Chicago and I know and feel how he has been and how vital FORA's intervention is in the successful transition of refugee children into the US education system." He enjoys helping others, traveling, music, and walking.

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GIULIANNA LARSON

Chief Outreach Officer, giuliannal@refugeefora.org

Giulianna Larson grew up in Toledo, Ohio and moved to Chicago to pursue a Bachelor of Arts in Multimedia Journalism with minors in Spanish, Arabic, and Political Science. After she earns her degree, Giulianna hopes to study law and become an immigration lawyer. Giulianna began as a tutor at FORA in September 2021. Her love for the students and the organization led her to continue a career at FORA. As an advocate for accessible education, Giulianna believes literacy will give students the ability to use their voice to speak out against inequality. Outside of FORA, Giulianna is a news writer for the Loyola Phoenix, the university newspaper. Giulianna has written about an array of topics such as religious inclusion, accessible education, and environmental sustainability. In addition, she enjoys painting, linoleum block printing as well as figure skating.  

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GOWRI RAO

Director of Communications and Fundraising Assistant, gowrir@refugeefora.org

Gowri Rao was born in Florida and grew up moving around a lot. Besides Florida, she has lived in Georgia, Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois as well as in India and the UAE. She graduated magna cum laude from the University of Chicago with a B.A. in Linguistics and a minor in History. Prior to joining FORA, she worked as a volunteer English teacher with the Indian Development Foundation, a research assistant in various linguistics labs at her university, and a virtual English and math tutor for children in elementary through high school. She loves working with children and watching them learn and grow and is passionate about expanding access to education. In her free time, you will probably find Gowri reading a fantasy novel, walking along Lake Michigan, or hanging out in her apartment with her roommates and friends.

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KIERA DONOVAN

Head of HDT and FSPP Officer, kierad@refugeefora.org

Kiera Donovan grew up in the suburbs of Chicago. In 2020 she graduated with her Bachelor's in English from the University of Dubuque, and she is currently pursuing her Master of Public Health. Prior to joining FORA, she gained experience as an intern at World Relief, a Family Community Support Provider in the mental health field, and a student teacher at Dubuque Community Schools. Kiera is passionate about helping people achieve their goals and discover their passions in life, and she believes that education and community support are essential to succeed. In her free time, she loves to read and spend time with her Goldendoodle named Caesar. 

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SUWAIBA OSMAN

HDT Education Officer, suwaibao@refugeefora.org

Suwaiba Osman was born and raised in the US as a first-generation daughter of Bengali immigrants. Her formal education ended at the age of ten and only continued when she entered college as an adult with a GED. After completing a degree in Applied Science, she entered the FORA workforce with the passion to assist other disadvantaged individuals attain literacy, grade-level proficiency, and pursue a path to higher education. She believes in contributing to a world that is kinder, brighter, and equal in its compassion for people regardless of their race or background. She also dreams of the day cat owners will finally be appreciated by their pets. In her free time, she enjoys reading, writing, and gaming.

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KADAMBARI LANKA

Head of FSPP and Data Management, kadambaril@refugeefora.org

Kadambari joined FORA as a full-time volunteer in November 2021. Born and Raised in Nagpur, Kadambari earned her Bachelor's Degree in Electronics and Telecommunication Engineering in 2014. She worked as a Disaster recovery consultant in the cybersecurity sector before moving to the US in 2019. At FORA, Kadambari supports the family and school partnership program. In her words, she says "FORA is a wonderful place for kids who feel disconnected after relocating to this new country amidst new culture. Kind people, lovely children makes FORA an enjoyable place to work. FORA is my comfort place." Coming from a diverse background, Kadambari believes in basic human rights needed to survive in a country that welcomes immigrants from all over the world. In her spare time, Kadambari loves to dance, travel and explore nature.

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MARCELA GARZA

HDT Education Officer, marcelag@refugeefora.org

Marce is an international student from Monterrey, Mexico studying Economics and Finance at Loyola University Chicago. She began as a tutor for FORA in September 2021 and loves teaching. She believes education is the key to effecting change in the world, which is what makes her passionate about working with FORA. She believes it is important that everyone gets the resources and opportunities to develop their capabilities and pursue their passions. She loves participating in social justice projects and during her free time she enjoys reading, going on runs, and getting to know Chicago. She loves being able to meet new people and traveling to new places. 

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ASHAL AMIRI

Junior HDT Education Officer

Ashal is an Afghan refugee who left her home country as a toddler and lived in Iran and then Turkey prior to arriving in Chicago at ten years of age. She is a senior at Mather High School and anticipates attending college in 2023. Ashal enjoys working at FORA because she is giving back to the community that has helped her thrive. “At FORA I can learn educationally as well as gain valuable life experiences. Supporting children learn quickly through high dose tutoring inspires me to work harder on my own educational goals.” Ashal would like to create a world where it is easy to get help for refugees no matter where they are from. Ashal believes that many small deeds will create that change. Outside of FORA, Ashal enjoys learning the art of photography. She is currently being mentored by a professional photographer, and spends much of her free time exploring the world through her lens. In her down-time, Ashal can be found choreographing dances, listening to a wide variety of music or watching TV dramas.