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Board and Staff Members

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Board of Directors

Melike Oncu, President of FORA's Board of Directors

MELIKE ONCU

President

Melike Oncu was named General Counsel of the International Code Council in January 2013. Ms. Oncu joined the International Code Council in October 2008 as Assistant General Counsel. As General Counsel, Ms. Oncu serves as a member of the ICC Senior Management Team and oversees all legal affairs for ICC and the ICC Family of Companies. Ms. Oncu holds a juris doctorate from George Washington University, and a bachelor's degree from Lafayette College. She began her legal career as a corporate attorney with the law firm White & Case, LLP. She also served as Of Counsel for the law firm of Bingham McCutchen, LLP. She currently lives in Chevy Chase, MD with her husband, two teenage daughters and her dog.

Natasha Yaqub, Secretary for FORA's Board of Directors

NATASHA YAQUB

Secretary

Natasha Yaqub holds a Bachelor’s in Psychology from Loyola University in Chicago, as well as a Masters in Community Counselling from Argosy University. She is experienced both in the sectors of social work and mental health care, having led a program advocating for children in long term foster care, in addition to having worked as a foster care case manager and a therapist at a behavioral day school. She has also previously volunteered at a hotline for domestic abuse and a support program for teen mothers. Originally from Michigan, Natasha has lived in the Chicago area for the past fifteen years, now residing in the Hinsdale suburb with her husband and their two young children. In her free time, Natasha enjoys cooking, cycling, yoga, reading, and travel.

Lena Jessen, Treasurer of FORA's Board of Directors

LENA JESSEN

Vice President and Acting Treasurer

Lena Jessen is an active and engaged community volunteer and currently serves on the board of the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools as chair of the Alumni and Family Relations and Development Committee. She also currently sits on the board of High Jump, chairing the Program Committee, and she previously served on the board of the Hyde Park Youth Symphony. Lena has worked in marketing, sales and consulting roles in firms working in the biotech, skincare and medical device spaces. Lena has a B.S. from Southern Methodist University and a MBA from the University of Chicago.

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MICHAEL O'CONNOR

Co-Founder and Board Member 

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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KATHLEEN O'CONNOR, PHD

Co-Founder and Board Memeber

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.

Wendy Kaplan Miller, member of FORA's Board of Directors

WENDY KAPLAN MILLER

Board Member

Wendy Kaplan Miller attended Amherst College where she co-led the Cambodian Refugee Tutoring Project. She taught fourth grade at the Bullis School in Potomac, MD. After graduating Harvard Law School, she served as an AmeriCorps attorney doing domestic violence work at Western Mass Legal Services and a housing attorney at Greater Boston Legal Services. She has been on the boards of Raising A Reader Massachusetts and the Cornelia de Lange Syndrome Foundation. She has been on the selection advisory committee for the GreenLight Fund and co-chaired a philanthropic giving circle at the Palo Alto Jewish Community Center. She volunteers in the Ravenswood School District. She currently lives in Palo Alto with her husband, two sons and two dogs.

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FARAH NOOR CHEEMA

Board Member

Farah Noor Cheema was born and raised in Pakistan, where she earned her medical degree with honors at King Edward Medical University. After immigrating to England, then the US, Farah was moved by a common theme: the unifying, cyclic benefits of community service. She became impassioned to promote self-sufficiency and empowerment through educational advancement. Thus, over the last decade, she has held volunteer leadership positions at various institutions, including the Avery Coonley School, the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the Muslim Leadership Academy at the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park, the Islamic Council of North America, and many interfaith community unification endeavors between Muslim, Christian and Jewish places of worship. She has also served on the board of the US branch of the Hunar Foundation, and collaborated with both Viator House of Hospitality and the Human Development Foundation.

Shaik Kaleem, member of FORA's Board of Directors

SHAIK KALEEM

Board Member

Shaik Kaleem was born and raised in India, where he earned his Bachelor’s Degree in Electronics and Communications Engineering from University of Madras.  In 1985 Kaleem migrated to the United States of America to pursue his master’s degree in Computer Engineering from Wayne State University, Detroit.  Since then, Kaleem has been working in the Communications and Technology Industry and has worked for Interface Electronics, Hughes Aircraft Company and for the last 26 years at Cisco Systems, Inc. He is currently the Senior Director, Global Business Development for Cisco’s IoT Business. Kaleem is responsible for driving the market expansion and growth of Cisco's IoT products across multiple industry verticals such as Manufacturing, Energy, Transportation and Public Sector.  In addition, Kaleem successfully led GTM teams that took multiple start-up businesses in Cisco to multi-$B businesses.  Kaleem has been associated with Islamic Foundation for the last 25 years and has served as one of the Board of Trustees and is the chairperson for Technology & Communications Committee.  Kaleem lives with his wife in the Chicago area and has been passionate about giving, community service, and refugee settlement and has successfully organized various community fundraising drives. 

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ZAINAB BAIG, MD

Board Memeber

Zainab Baig, MD (Board Member) is a Board Certified Internist who has practiced as a Hospitalist and Practice Builder at several hospitals across Chicagoland for over 20 years. In addition, she most recently served as an Associate Medical Director at Elevance Health (formerly Anthem) where she helped physicians across the country assess and manage complex patient cases. Zainab is also on the Board of AMPI USA — a non profit providing affordable healthcare to the poor and refugee communities across the world. She did her residency at a Cornell University hospital in New York City and studied medicine at Osmania Medical College in Hyderabad, India. Zainab is passionate about expanding access to healthcare and eduction for underprivileged communities, and has been an active volunteer and fund raiser for FORA since 2019.

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JULIE SCHULZ HALBOWER

Board Memeber

Julie Schulz Halbower (Board Member) was born and raised in the Chicago area. She received a bachelors of arts degree in Economics from Duke University and a juris doctorate from Northwestern Pritzker School of Law. She began her legal career in New York City practicing corporate law with the law firm, Coudert Bros., and then moved back to Chicago to practice commercial litigation with Holleb & Coff. From there, she was appointed Associate General Counsel at the accounting firm, Grant Thornton LLP, where she worked for several years before retiring to focus on her family. She has also been on the boards of other charities in the Chicago area that benefit children and healthcare. She currently splits her time between Kenilwoth, IL, Naples, FL, and Exeter, NH, where she lives with her husband Matthew, two daughters and three dogs. Her daughters have joyfully volunteered at FORA and found the experience to be very meaningful.

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Core Team

David McKenzie, FORA's Chief Administrative Officer

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.

Kathleen O'Connor, FORA's Co-Founder and Education Programs Director

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.  

Michael O'Connor, FORA's Co-Founder and Managing Director

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.

Fazlulhaq Fayez, High Dosage Tutoring and Family/School Partnership Program Officer

FAZLULHAQ FAYEZ

Deputy Head of Family-School Partnership Program, 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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NICOLE CHASE

Chief Financial Officer, nicolec@refugeefora.org

Nicole is originally from New York but has called four countries and five states home before settling here in Illinois. She obtained a Bachelors in Politics and Latin American Studies with a concentration in Peace and Conflict Studies from Oberlin College. She has spent the last several years working in nonprofit administration for organizations such as the New England Innocence Project and Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights. Nicole is passionate about working towards creating a country that lives up to its founding ideals of freedom and equality. 

Giulianna Larson, FORA's Chief Outreach Officer

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.  

Gowri Rao, FORA's Director of Communications and a Fundraising Assistant

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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SUELLEN DE BARROS

Director of High Impact Tutoring, suellend@refugeefora.org

Suellen De Barros grew up in Recife, Brazil and came to the United States in 2019. In Recife, she completed her degree in Biological Science and obtained her license to teach Science and Biology. After graduating, Suellen moved to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where she earned a Masters's in Science and Mathematics Education. She is currently a Ph.D. student at the University of Illinois at Chicago studying Science Education. Suellen is a researcher who has worked on projects in different fields of education. She was a trainer for science teachers and has been a teacher since 2012. She has taught Science and Biology at various levels, from kindergarten to higher education. In higher education, Suellen taught Science Education and Inclusion, Microbiology, and Anatomy. In addition, she was and still is an educator in different non-formal settings in Brazil and the United States, such as zoos and science museums. While she was in undergraduate school, Suellen created a pre-college course for financially vulnerable students. With the support of her colleagues, she was able to help many high school students get accepted to different colleges. Since then, her research and actions have been based on Paulo Freire's Pedagogy, which preaches social justice, equity, and human rights. In her free time, Suellen likes to travel and experience different cultures, visit museums, cook, camp, hike, and visit thrift stores. At FORA, she is responsible for running our tutoring program and special projects, including managing our learning software, creating and adapting learning plans, and offering support to all tutoring staff, volunteers, and students

Suwaiba Osman, a High Dosage Tutoring officer at FORA

SUWAIBA OSMAN

HIT 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.

Syeda Siddiqua, FORA's Deputy Head of Family/School Partnership Program

SYEDA SIDDIQUA

Deputy Head of Family-School Partnership Program, syedas@refugeefora.org

Syeda is a proud Chicago native who argues it to be the best city in the U.S. She graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a Bachelors in Psychology, which prepared her for her role as a psychosocial rehabilitation case manager. Syeda has worn many hats, including that of a medical student and a middle school science teacher. She is passionate about furthering her education in public health. Syeda believes education is a basic human right and is passionate about guiding others to their full potential. In the time that Syeda has been at FORA, she has become fond of the positive and encouraging environment. In her spare time, Syeda likes traveling, hiking, painting, and spending time with friends & her big Indian family. 

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HOSSEIN RAHBAR

Deputy Head of Family-School Partnership Program, hosseinr@refugeefora.org

Hossein Rahbar is a compassionate individual with a Bachelor's degree in Computer Software and experience as a Montessori Pre-school teacher in Chicago. He has a strong affinity for sports, outdoor activities, and a genuine desire to support refugee children in need. With his technical skills, teaching background, and dedication, Hossein strives to make a positive impact by empowering and mentoring refugee kids.
 

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MARYAM SOHI

Director of IT and FSPP Officer, maryams@refugeefora.org

Maryam Sohi is a highly skilled professional with a Master's degree in Information Technology, equipping her with comprehensive knowledge of systems and workflows. With previous experience as a substitute teacher in Chicago, she has developed a deep understanding of educational environments and the importance of efficient operations. Maryam brings her expertise in technology and her keen insight into organizational processes to optimize systems and workflows for enhanced productivity and effectiveness.

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GRACE ZAKI

HIT Education Officer, gracez@refugeefora.org

Grace Zaki is a Chicago native who feels fortunate to have graduated from Valparaiso University, where she earned a Bachelor's degree in Political Science with a minor in Peace and Social Justice. Previously, she had the privilege of serving as a Survivor Advocate at the YWCA, supporting survivors and advocating for their rights. Passionate about providing equitable, empathetic, and respectful care, Grace focuses her efforts on serving refugee children and families. She remains humbled by the opportunity to contribute to the well-being of others and is committed to working towards a more just and inclusive world for all.

Tamara Westhoff, FORA's Collegiate Opportunities Advisors

TAMARA WESTHOFF

Chief Operations Officer, tamaraw@refugeefora.org

Tamara Westhoff has called Chicago home for the past five years.  Previous to Chicago, she has spent time on both coasts and abroad.  Tamara's career path started with a degree in Marketing from Drake University.  She has worked for a large insurance company in the Midwest, a community based reading program in Arizona, and provided fundraising support to performing arts organizations based out of Los Angeles. Tamara is retired and spends her time with her two high school children, husband and two dogs.  She is passionate about all students having access to education and she feels privileged to help students embark on their college journey.

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Matthew Engelhardt

Outreach Officer, matthewe@refugeefora.org

Matthew Engelhardt is a Chicago native who got his B.A. from the Valparaiso University and a Master's in History from the University of Kentucky. Matt has worked in housing and residence life, fraternities, sororities, admissions, and with development & alumni relations. Most recently, he worked for the Carey Business School at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, where he stewarded donor gifts, coordinated endowments, and led the operations of the development & alumni relations office. Matt couldn't be more excited to be a part of FORA and to find more FORA supporters. In his free time, he enjoys cooking and volunteering at a local animal shelter, where he walks  dogs, cleans kennels, and does pretty much anything that needs to be done.

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Freskida Sejdiu

HIT Education Officer, freskidas@refugeefora.org

Freskida Sejdiu grew up in the suburbs of Chicago as the daughter of two Kosovar-Albanian refugees. She graduated from Northwestern University in June 2023 with a B.S. in Education and Social Policy, a certificate in Civic Engagement, and a minor in Legal Studies. During undergrad, she interned for the Orders of Protection division of Ascend Justice at the Cook County 'Domestic Violence' courthouse and with duty solicitors in London. Outside of FORA, Freskida works full-time as a paralegal with the Immigrant Children's Protection Project of the National Immigrant Justice Center in Chicago. She hopes to apply to law school for the fall of 2025 and eventually practice immigration law. When she's not working, Freskida enjoys spending time with friends and family, reading, crocheting, and listening to music! 

Ashal Amiri, FORA's Junior High Dosage Tutoring Education Officer

ASAL AMIRI

Junior HDT Education Officer

Asal 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. Asal 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.” Asal would like to create a world where it is easy to get help for refugees no matter where they are from. Asal believes that many small deeds will create that change. Outside of FORA, Asal 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, Asal can be found choreographing dances, listening to a wide variety of music or watching TV dramas.

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Hossein
Syeda
Suwaiba
Suellen
Gowri
Giulianna
Nicole
Fayez
David
Freskida
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