Crowdfunding Campaign Houses 8-Year-Old Chess Champion Refugee

At just 8 years old, Tanitoluwa Adewumi hasn’t had an easy life. His family fled Nigeria in 2017, fearing attacks from jihadi terrorist group Boko Haram against Christians like themselves. They then moved to New York City and lived in a homeless shelter in Manhattan for two years. But Tanitoluwa, who also goes by Tani, was born with talent and drive. He recently won the 52nd New York State Scholastic Championships chess tournament for kindergarten through third graders, according to a New York Times report. He was undefeated throughout the competition, which had gathered players from elite schools with private coaches.

“I want to be the youngest grandmaster,” Tani told the Times’ Nicholas Kristof. Tani has seven trophies by the bed he sleeps on in the shelter. What makes Tani’s story even more special is that he learned chess about a year ago, and his play improved exponentially month after month. Tani practices during three-hour sessions in Harlem on Saturdays, and likes to play online on his father’s laptop during the week. Now, he’s getting ready for the elementary national competition in May.

“He is so driven,” Shawn Martinez, Tan’s school chess teacher, told Kristof. “He does 10 times more chess puzzles than the average kid. He just wants to be better.” And things are indeed getting better for him and his family. Russell Makofsky, Tani’s chess coach, set up a GoFundMe page on March 15 to help his family secure a house where he can continue practicing. The initial $50,000 goal was surpassed in just a week, and currently stands at $210,115.

Tani’s story on the Times has inspired many to donate. “Refugees are all of us. We need to be reminded how important it is to be conscious of and grateful for the opportunities we enjoy in this country. It is an ugly disgrace the way this administration and some of its supporters treat refugees. Welcome to all of you. Thank you for being brave enough to come to this country. GO TANI! Strong work,” a donor named Erica Chapin wrote.

The story even received the attention of former President Bill Clinton, who tweeted: “Refugees enrich our nation and talent is universal, even if opportunity is not. This story made me smile. Tanitoluwa, you exemplify a winning spirit — in chess and in life. And kudos to your hardworking parents. You all should stop by my office in Harlem; I'd love to meet you.”

Tani’s family can move into an apartment thanks to the fundraiser. “Anything is possible,” Tani told BBC News. “God can do anything for me. He can do anything for my family.”


About the Author

Robert Valencia is the breaking news editor for The North Star. His work as editor and reporter appeared on Newsweek, World Politics Review, Mic.com, Public Radio International and The Miami Herald, among other outlets. He’s a frequent commentator on foreign affairs and US politics on Al Jazeera English, CNN en Español, Univision, Telemundo, Voice of America, C-SPAN, Sirius XM and other media outlets across Latin America and the Caribbean.