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The refugee family who gave away everything

Person Craig Borlase
4 min

From the New York Times website, March 16th 2019:

This 8-Year-Old Chess Champion Will Make You Smile

As articles go, it was never going to be the most popular piece on the New York Times site that day. The massacre in a mosque in New Zealand and the threat of renewed nuclear testing by North Korea were both far bigger stories, not to mention the usual turmoil of domestic US politics and a celebrity fall from grace.

But the tale of a primary school kid’s victory at a chess tournament had something special about it. It touched people. It made them smile. It warmed them in a way that no other story that day did.

Soon, even within a matter of hours, the article about eight-year-old Tani Adewumi had become the thing that PR people and digital marketers hunger for. It had gone viral. And not just a little bit viral. It was well on the way to going global.

The story starts thousands of miles away from the chaos of New York.

Born and raised in Nigeria, Tani was too young to really notice the changes that were taking place in his homeland. But his parents understood. They knew why there were security guards at school and why, every Sunday when they went to church, they would first have to pass through a metal detector and airport-style security. For Christians like them, the rise of Boko Haram was a cause for concern.

As a family, the Adewumis kept a low profile and managed to avoid the militants. But that only lasted so long. Eventually, when Mr Adewumi refused to take on a job in his printing shop for Boko Haram, they became targets. After a handful of near misses and close calls the family fled to America. They claimed asylum, moved into a homeless shelter in New York City and joined the ranks of refugees doing manual jobs – driving Uber cars, washing up dishes or cleaning houses.

There must be hundreds, maybe even thousands of people with similar stories in New York at any given time. But something happened to the Adewumis that changed their life and made a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist take note. The event was simple, but significant: their youngest son, Tani, joined a chess club.

Within a year Tani went from complete novice to competing at the highest level, facing opponents who had enjoyed year after year of private coaching. And when Tani turned up at the New York State Championship, his bold, risky, sometimes aggressive playing style was too much for every other eight year old that he played.

And so the story of a homeless kid who became State Champion just one year after picking up the game captured one the New York Times’ interest. But it is what happened next that is truly inspiring.

For ten straight days Tani’s story was all over certain corners of the news and it became one of the most shared internet stories in the world. TV networks across the US asked for an interview, as did the BBC and TV stations in Germany, China and beyond. Politicians tweeted, movie producers and publishers expressed their interest and even Bill Clinton asked Tani and family to drop by his office for a visit.

But none of that is what really stands out. Because the truly impressive part of Tani’s story is not the media coverage or the chess skills. It’s the generosity that it unleashed.

On the back of the article published on March 16th, Tani’s coach set up a crowd funding page. He hoped to raise a few thousand dollars so that the family could move out of the shelter and rent somewhere of their own.

Within four hours they’d raised $10,000 (£8,000).

In less than two weeks the total had reached almost $260,000 (£208,000).

A few people had given large sums, but the vast majority gave $5 or $10. Small acts that added up to make a big difference.

People’s generosity was not limited to the site. Someone bought the Adewumis a car – a brand new Honda – while another donor payed for a year’s rent in an apartment, their first home since Boko Haram chased them out of theirs two years earlier.

But even these acts of generosity are not the highlight of the story.

Even before they moved out of the shelter and into their new apartment, the Adewumis decided they would do something dramatic.

“What had started as a need for a home had become something far bigger,” explains Mrs Adewumi. “The outpouring of generosity from people all over the world had been far greater than we could have ever imagined. We felt compelled to do something equally great with the money that had been given. We wanted to give other people the same opportunity as we had been given to see their lives transformed.”

They announced their decision to form the Tanitoluwa Adewumi Foundation, and to give away the money they had been given.

Not some of it. All of it. Every single cent.

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