July 18, 2006, Published in the Chicago Tribune


By Naazish YarKhan

“Ha,ha, ha. Now whose the fairest of us all?” the wicked Queen chortled, sauntering away from the unconscious Princess Blanca Flor. The audience cheered for the cast, which ranged from elementary school–goers to high schoolers. The actors, the majority of whom were African refugees, represented 12 countries and all attend the after-school program run by Glen Ellyn Community Resource Center (GECRC).

“I’m not really, actually evil, but I liked being evil to the princess,” 4th grader, Nania Chol, says after the play. “Hey, I’m [sitting] right here you know,” retorts Elsita Alarcon, 9, who’d played Blanca Flor, just moments ago. “I always wanted to be a princess,” enthuses the 4th grader, who adores Shirley Temple and Hannah Montana. “I was surprised I got the part. We had to practice a lot to get it all memorized. It was so much fun!” she says. “How did we get the part? Last year, we were in a play called Rabbit in the Well, so I think they had a sense that we’re good actors,” she says on behalf of herself and Chol.

However, their enactment of Blanca Flor, the Mexican version of ‘Snow White’, was more than a play. It was a means to learn English, proper pronunciation and grammar, said GECRC Director, Daniel Zagami, who has a Masters in Intercultural Studies and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), as does GECRC Assistant Director, Margaret Kraai. “They practiced for three months, thrice a week, 30 minutes a day,” said Zagami. “Many of our students are from cultures that are traditionally oral. I really believe we can teach English by teaching the students oral culture. Kids have a great ability to memorize a lot of information. Instead of written exercises, we used drama to teach grammar, including verbs and tenses.”

Students are divided into groups based on Teacher’s Evaluations indicating literacy levels, and Assessments he and Krai developed and conduct three times a year. GECRC volunteers also fill in a daily Competency Log tracking students’ progress. “Most of the students [in the program] are behind their grade levels. There are clear improvements and in the summer when school is out, we know those improvements are because of the program,” says Zagami.

Between 3:30 p.m. and 6 p.m. each day, “we’re trying to hit things that they don’t cover during school. We teach them to write their name, address and phone number, learn to use a ruler, weigh things, learn synonyms, antonyms...”

The organization was created five years ago when Kasey Sanders, a current GECRC Board member, saw the need for ESL help for some Hispanic families who attended Lincoln Elementary School, in Glen Ellyn, where her own children studied. Today, the program is housed at Lincoln Elementary School itself, since most of its attendees attend Lincoln during the school year. Much of its funding is from the County and Infant Welfare.

“ I liked how everyone had their costumes and looked like their characters and got to say their parts very well,” says Catherine Tarpeh, 11, who arrived from Liberia two years ago, and played the Mirror on the wall. It took her two days to have red extensions, befitting her character, put into her hair. She likes them enough to keep them in until school lets out. Would she ever go back home? “No thank you,” comes the prompt response. Not surprising for a child who has fled the murderous violence that claimed her grandparents and uncles.

“We have 12 or 13 cultural backgrounds, including different languages and religions, and it’s a K-12 program, so we have different age groups too. It’s great to have that cultural diversity but it’s also challenging to accomplish the literacy goals that we have, and have kids work together, because of that,” says Zagami. He is interested in having the children perform at other locations too, so that they can continue to build confidence and practice their English.

(630) 858-0100 ext. 239 or (630) 899-9919;

( This article originally appeared in the July 18th edition of the Chicago Tribune. )

Best-selling teen author Farah Ahmedi triumphs over Afghanistan’s tragedy

At 17, she was the author of a New York Times bestseller, a visitor to First Lady Laura Bush, and a guest of Heather and Paul McCartney who presented her with a Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2005. At 19, she is a junior on a full scholarship at North Central College in Illinois. Excerpts of her memoir are currently being translated into 56 languages for the international edition of Readers Digest. Two publishers have purchased rights to use excerpts from her memoirs, including Hampton-Brown, a division of National Geographic. Meet Farah Ahmedi, author of The Other Side of the Sky; the same girl who took a short cut to school when she was seven and lost her leg to a landmine in the battlefield that is Kabul, Afghanistan.

When ABC News’ Good Morning America, in collaboration with Simon and Schuster, asked its viewers to write for “Story of My Life” describing their life experiences, the network was deluged with 6,000 entries and more than twenty thousand pages of inspiring stories. A panel of best-selling authors and editors chose three finalists, and viewers voted one from among these, to be published. . Farah Ahmedi’s story was that book.

Rarely does a book move one’s soul the way this one does, forcing us to reconsider our own good fortune and persuading us that we are on this earth to be our brother’s keepers.

In The Other Side of the Sky, we learn that after the landmine blast, seven-year-old Farah spent two lonely years hospitalized in Germany, away from her family. Her story is shaped by the context of decades of war in her home country. After the fall of the Soviet occupation, the Taliban took over war-torn Afghanistan and imposed their version of Islamic rule. With millions of men dead and women prohibited from working, countless families were reduced to poverty. The Taliban also conscripted young men and boys into their army; coercing many.Fearing for their sons, Farah’s well-to-do parents sent their sons to Pakistan. That was the last time Farah and her family saw the boys. Weeks later Farah and her mother returned from a shopping trip to find rubble and death where their home had once been. Farah’s father and sisters had been killed in a bomb blast.

Farah and her mother, Fatima, joined the thousands fleeing Afghanistan for Pakistan. Unlike Iran, which had closed its borders to Afghan refugees at the time, there were millions streaming into Pakistan. Achieving freedom from the constant gunfire and bombs was like finding heaven on earth, says Farah. “When we finally made it, we couldn’t stop laughing and praising God from sheer relief.”

Once there, Farah’s trials would include servitude to children her own age, where she and her mother lived as refugees, and becoming caretaker to her mother who suffered from asthma. But despite these setbacks, Farah was sustained by her faith in Allah.

Coming to America was not part of their initial plans, until news of the UN program to accept Afghani refugees spread like wild fire. Farah spent days trying to convince her mother to apply and when she heard the program was looking for widows and children with disabilities, she knew it was worth giving it a shot. “We’d been in Pakistan as refugees for four years. People tried to discourage us from applying for a UN program that was taking Afghan refugees to America. They said in America, we would be slaves. That’s what they had heard based on American history, but they didn’t know America had changed. My mother didn’t want to go. But I had been in Germany and I knew that America could be like Germany. It would be a place where someone with a handicap could still have dignity. I knew that wasn’t possible in Pakistan. I would have been a servant or beggar all my life in Pakistan,” says Farah.

She is not exaggerating. Landmines and cluster bombs continue to harm children like Farah in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa and Palestine who, given the impoverished conditions of these nations, now live with few choices at ever having a normal life. These devices inflict damage long after wars are over. Further, according to recent estimates from the U.S. Committee for Refugees, there are 12 million refugees and asylum seekers throughout the world and 21 million internally displaced persons in need of protection and assistance. In 2005, more than three million people became newly uprooted from their homes and/or countries.

Injury, disability, internal displacement and then status as a refugee could certainly have led to the grim future Farah predicted for herself. Following interviews with the American Embassy in Pakistan, Farah and her mother were amongst the families choosen to be sent to America. At New York, some of the Afghani families were sent to California while Farah and her mother were put on a plane to Chicago. The resettlement agency receiving them in Chicago was World Relief. It turned out to be a bumpy, bewildering beginning, but also one that eventually connected Farah and Fatima with Alyce Litz.. A volunteer with Illinois-based World Relief, a refugee resettlement agency, Litz was to become Farah’s friend, mentor and guide in America, demonstrating that love can transcend boundaries of culture and faith. Alyce has been a mother-figure to Farah for the past five years and is also the founder of Helping Hands Inc., a refugee assistance organization for all faiths.

“As soon as I met Farah, I saw her determination,” says Alyce. She and her husband recognized the potential in Farah and decided to move Farah and her mother to a better school district where subsidized housing was available. “We knew if she attended Glenbard North, the school closest to where she lived, she’d go the refugee route. She’d be in school till sixteen and then be pulled out to go to work. I didn’t want that for her,” says Alyce.

“Alyce moved us to a subsidized apartment, and since we were still on a waiting list for it, she agreed to pay the $900 per month herself. She was that determined for me to go to a good school,” says Farah. As it happened, because they were in occupancy, under the regulations of the time, Farah and her mother were automatically moved to first position on the wait list. Their rent became affordable on their limited income from government aid.

When Farah arrived at school, she didn’t know her English alphabet and she was old enough to be placed in the ninth grade. The last time she had been at school was as a second grader, before she’d lost her leg and before she’d spent two years recovering in a German hospital.

Alyce found tutors to get Farah up to speed and with a few months of hard work, Farah was a high school freshman. “There are so many bright, deserving children out there. I really feel that all it takes is for someone to care enough to give them some support and allow them to realize their potential,” says Alyce.

With Alyce’s help, Farah’s potential was soon realized—when she graduated from high school and went on to college, she quickly made the Dean’s List.

“She happened to be very worried one day. She said the Dean had sent her a letter and that she was on the Dean’s List. In high school that meant a student was in trouble, but I explained to her that in college it was a good thing. She got all A’s and B’s and that’s why she was on the Dean’s List,” says Alyce with a smile.

The Other Side of the Sky is the story of a girl who has already lived several lifetimes, facing obstacles and setbacks most of us cannot imagine. Farah’s journey has led her to establish Farah’s Wings of Hope, a non-profit foundation that helps other amputees with their specific needs, a cause she remains devoted to.

Is she a millionaire off the sales of her book? Not quite. According to the rules of the Good Morning America contest, the winner would be paid $10,000 but royalties from the winning entry belong to the ABC producer who developed the idea for the contest. Farah is, however, entitled to proceeds from the books that she and Alyce sell themselves.

Today Farah Ahmedi is the Youth Ambassador of United Nations Group, Adopt-a-Minefield. She has been featured in Teen Magazine as one of “20 People Who Can Change the World.” She has also been called a modern day Anne Frank by the Weekly Reader. With all these achievements within her grasp, does she now have dreams or do the nightmares of the past remain?

This shy but accomplished young woman admits, “I am still a little afraid to dream but my message remains, ‘Never Give Up!’”

To make a contribution to Farah’s Wings of Hope or to order The Other Side of the Sky, visit To learn more about Alyce Litz’ organization, Helping Hands Inc., write to