Fereshteh Ganjavi came to New Haven, Connecticut as a refugee in 2011. From her personal experience, she knows that it can be a long and arduous process to adapt to a new country. Many people helped her start her new life, a fact that she never forgets.
Since she was a young girl, Fereshteh has had a passion for education. She was taught by her father to value education for the opportunity and freedom it could provide: he always described it as "the light for a bright future." Fereshteh herself became that beacon of light when she was just a child, and shared her drive for education with those around her.
After being resettled in the United States, Fereshteh realized that people in her community - especially women - still didn’t have access to practical and tailored education for their needs. Those who had recently been resettled benefit from the outstanding support from their refugee resettlement agency. Still, because of cultural, familial, and logistical barriers, many cannot attend the classes offered to them.
"I became an adult at the age of twelve while I was in 6th grade. Because my parents fled to a second country from Afghanistan, they had no legal documents and I could not go to elementary school. I shadowed adult classes in my community but never was on the roster.
My father, seeing that I was not the only one prohibited from attending school, connected me with Afghani kids in my neighborhood and I became a teacher, leader, and a guide for Afghan students who were not allowed to go to school because they lacked legal documentation. Some students were even older than me.
They were thirsty for education. The signs of the city were brightly lit but they were lost in the darkness because they were not able to read them. My father asked me to help by teaching them, and he gave me all of the confidence as I needed.
The school we started had two sessions during the day; I became a teacher in the mornings and a student in the afternoons. I worked hard at our secret Afghan school to make that place a safe home for anyone who wanted to get an education."
Elena's Light was born to serve these unmet needs. Designed with accessibility in mind, Fereshteh set out to design a program to finally address the challenges faced by refugee and immigrant families in the United States. Drawing on her own experience and the experiences of those around her, she created a solution with a three-pronged approach: the provision of free, in-home customizable ESL tutoring sessions with a focus on driver's education, the provision of in-home maternal and pediatric health education services, and the creation of safe spaces for cultural exchange and immersion. Thus, our organization was born.
At roughly the same time we were founded, Fereshteh's first daughter, Elena, was born too. Elena, whose name means "light" in Farsi, embodies the hope and opportunity that refugees and immigrants leave their homes to find.
Elena's birth inspired our organization's name. "Elena's Light" is a reference to Fereshteh's father's description of education as "the light for a bright future." Fereshteh also wanted to use Elena's name to address an Afghani cultural taboo. In her culture, women are often not referred to by their first names, but identified in relation to a male ("John's sister, Abdu's daughter, etc.). By using Elena's name, Fereshteh chose to make a statement on equality and equity, and the importance of education and opportunity for everyone.