I’ve encountered many people deeply touched and even transformed through their volunteering with Cluster Tutoring and Kids Express — such great opportunities to support children in need locally. My transformative tutoring experience has been with Forging Opportunities for Refugees in America (FORA).

The past two summers, I tutored an Afghan girl the same age as my daughter, now 11. When I first met Habibi (not her real name), she mentioned that her mother often prays for family still in Afghanistan. Her distress was all the more palpable the week the Biden Administration pulled Americans out from Afghanistan. My heart ached for this talkative, curious girl who struggled to understand the world events that caused her mother ever more grief.

Both Habibi and my daughter are bright and spirited. They both like the same pop musicians, (Olivia Rodrigo, Ariana Grande), and the same YouTubers (Norris Nuts, Aphmau), but Habibi grew up in refugee camps in Iran and Turkey, with little access to education. Her mother had fled Afghanistan 10 years prior because of Taliban persecution. The family came to the United States with no material possessions, mostly illiterate, and speaking no English.

When I met Habibi in the summer of 2021, her American school teachers had recommended that she repeat fourth grade. However, I witnessed a quick-learning girl who sought ever more challenging things to read. After reading for a week from the Wrenly series, she asked for something more challenging. She especially liked non-fiction, wanting to learn about the world. By summer’s end, she was fully and joyfully ready for fifth grade. And she thrived in fifth grade!

Over half of FORA’s students are Rohingya. In 2018, the UN declared the Rohingya the most persecuted people on the planet, deprived of education and subject to genocide in Myanmar. Cox Bazaar, the largest refugee camp in the world, holds 850,000 Rohingya in Bangladesh. This past March, the U.S. State Department also formally recognized that the Rohingya have suffered genocide. Hopefully, more Rohingya families will be resettled in Chicago and elsewhere.

FORA was founded by former Oak Parkers, Kathleen and Michael O’Connor with 12 Rohingya students in 2018. Within three weeks, their waitlist had 60 children. When the pandemic hit, FORA recruited many online tutors. Within weeks FORA had over 120 daily tutors supporting children online. Because of this outpouring of support from people of compassion, FORA offered tutoring to all the children on their waitlist.

In June 2021, FORA returned to in-person tutoring at their West Ridge location. Bursting at the seams with another waitlist of more than 70 children, they are in need of additional tutors, both in-person and online. They hope to expand with a much larger building in the next year.

My children have joined me as tutors for three weeks. FORA tutors range in age from 11 to 95, the 95-year-old coming in from Naperville. FORA provides a safe, supportive atmosphere that customizes the learning for each of the children.

I am deeply inspired by FORA’s vision, leadership, and generosity. The founders remain full-time volunteers. They have cultivated a learning community where all members of the truly multicultural, multifaith staff (many former refugees) and volunteer tutors learn from one another and the children served, whose families are predominantly Muslim. FORA significantly changes the lives and families of scores of students — and often those who work with them. The result has been the development of a relational network that brings together hundreds of people to participate in this meaningful work.

Even though Habibi and her older sister did not speak English when they came to the U.S. three years ago, they harbor resilience, curiosity, and a deep desire to learn and support their family. As Michael O’Connor was quoted a year ago by the Chicago Tribune, “Welcoming these children robustly is so important.”

This is a burgeoning community of compassion, inspiration, and mutual understanding. If you would like to learn more, visit RefugeeFORA.org. If you want to become a volunteer (in-person or online), visit FORA, or meet the founders here in Oak Park, please contact me at alan@lovewithcourage.org or FORA directly at info@refugeefora.org.

Rev. Alan Taylor is a resident of Oak Park and former president of the Community of Congregations.

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