Christian family flees Nigeria, seeks asylum in U.S., discovers 8-year-old son is chess prodigy

Eight-year-old Tanitoluwa (Tani) Adewumi had never seen a chess board in Nigeria. If he’d stayed there, he likely never would have.

When the Adewumi family fled the religious persecution of Boko Haram in 2017, their hopes were modest: to make a meager living, find a home, and practice their Christian faith in peace. Kayode, Tani’s dad, began working two jobs, while Tani’s mother, Oluwatoyin, enrolled him in a local public school. It was there he first found chess, and after the school agreed to wave the fees for him, Tani devoted himself to the game.

Within a year, Tani had won seven tournaments, and he was recently crowned the Primary Chess Champion in the kindergarten-to-third-grade bracket of the 52nd New York State Scholastic Championships. This has led to speculation that Tani, a refugee living in a New York City homeless shelter, could become the youngest chess grandmaster in history.

“One year to get to this level, to climb a mountain and be the best of the best, without family resources, I’ve never seen it,” Russell Makofsky, who oversees Tani’s school chess program, told The New York Times. “Tani is rich beyond measure, in the strength, love and support of his family.”

Following the publication of Tani’s story, a GoFundMe page was created for the Adewumi family, quickly raising over $200,000. An apartment near Tani’s school was donated to the family rent-free for a year, and he has received three scholarship offers to private schools. The Adewumi family has decided not keep any of the money, tithing 10 percent to their local church that helped them find a home in the United States, and donating the rest toward helping other Nigerian refugees find the same opportunities they have.

“Anybody who is coming from Africa who is in the position we were in, we will help them,” Kayode said. “God has already blessed me. I want to release my blessing to others.”

Nigeria was recently ranked as the 12th worst persecutor of Christians on the Open Doors World Watch List. On Feb. 17, 2018, Boko Haram militants attacked a Christian farming village in Borno State, in the northern side of Nigeria where scores of families like the Adewumi families live. The attack, in which at least 106 people were killed, specifically targeted male residents of the Christian community.

While the Adewumi family has been blessed beyond what it could have hoped for, life in America has not been easy. In addition to being teased regularly by other kids at school for being homeless, Tani and his family are still uncertain whether they will be able to stay in the United States. Their next asylum hearing is in August, and between now and then the Adewumis will live in the knowledge that they could be sent back to Nigeria, something Tani has a hard time understanding.

“I feel American,” Tani said. “I want to stay here and become the youngest grandmaster.”

For now, though, Tani is trying to put that out of his mind. He practices chess for hours a day, showing a mastery of the game far beyond his years.

“He is so driven,” said Tani’s school chess teacher, Shawn Martinez. “He does 10 times more chess puzzles than the average kid. He just wants to be better.”

Hopefully Tani will get that chance.

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