As Easter approaches, I’ve been thinking about a Nigerian Christian refugee family — father, mother and two sons — who fled northern Nigeria in 2017 in fear of attacks on Christians by Boko Haram terrorists.
In New York, according to New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, a pastor directed them to a homeless shelter. There Kayode Adewumi, his wife, Oluwatoyin, and two sons, 8-year-old Tanitoluwa, and his older brother, Austin, lived anonymously while awaiting a response to their asylum application.
The father rented a car and used it to drive for Uber and became a licensed real estate salesman, working through Brick & Mortar. His wife took and passed a course to become a health aide. Tani, then 7, was enrolled at Public School 116 where a part-time teacher taught his class how to play chess.
His mother, still struggling to learn English, then sent an email to the school saying: “He is interested in the chess program, which he will like to be participating in,” adding that she could not pay the fees because the family was living in a shelter.
Russell Makofsky, who oversees the chess program, waived the fees. Tani’s mom accompanied the boy every Saturday to free three-hour practice sessions in Harlem. His dad let Tani use his laptop computer to practice every night.
A year later, the boy was crowned New York state chess champion in his category, kindergarten to third grade. Makofsky told Kristof: “One year to get to this level, to climb the mountain and be the best of the best, without family resources, I have never seen it.”
As a result, Tani now has a home, scholarship offers from elite private schools and an invitation to meet former President Bill Clinton. A GoFundMe account set up after Kristof’s first column raised $200,000 for the family and brought a half-dozen offers of apartments, pro bono legal assistance from immigration lawyers and three film companies vying to make movies of Tani. And his mother was hired as a health aide by a hospital.
The most inspiring element of this saga is how the Adewumis responded to all this. They accepted the offer of a modest two-bedroom apartment when they could have taken a palatial one. They happily accepted a donor’s offer of furniture, sheets and towels, and the 100 chess books someone else contributed.
But as to the money, they took 10 percent of the $200,000 to tithe to their church and gave away the rest to be distributed by a new Tanitoluwa Adewumi Foundation to help African immigrants who are struggling in the United States as the Adewumis were just weeks ago.
The boy’s parents deferred on accepting a scholarship to an elite private school until Tani gets to junior high. They decided he would be loyal to the public elementary school that taught him chess. “This school showed confidence in Tanitoluwa,” his mother said. “So we return the confidence.” The P.S. 116 principal, Jane Hsu, held a pep rally to celebrate Tani’s triumph.
“Tani is a reminder that refugees enrich this nation — and that talent is universal, even if opportunity is not,” Kristof concluded. “Back in Nigeria, his parents say, his brilliance at chess would never have had an outlet.”
“I want my Mom’s cooking again!” Tani said as he explored the apartment.
As we approach the Easter season, the Adewumis lack of materialism is a lesson to all of us. Kristof asked them how they could turn down every penny of the huge sum they received. “Didn’t they want a celebration dinner? New iPhones? A vacation?” They said no, and Tani added: “I want to help other kids.”
Sandoval is a columnist for Catholic News Service.