Donation Diaspora

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #7 in December 2008]

Jean Pierre Malonga recently hosted a wine and cheese reception at an upscale furniture gallery near the Magnificent Mile to benefit an elementary school in the Republic of Congo. Jean Pierre seems unusual since he has continued his generous international philanthropy despite the current hard economic times. What really is unusual is that Mr. Malonga did not make it big in Wall Street or inherit a trust fund; he drives a taxi and lives with his sister in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. Jean Pierre joins a growing trend of diaspora donors: immigrants and refugees who regularly donate generously to community projects in their native countries beyond the usual remittances they might send back home to support their immediate family. According to a recent 2008 survey, Chicago diaspora donors sent over four million dollars to support various international projects—to build schools, hospitals and roads, provide educational scholarships, create jobs and even provide avenues for art, music and sports exchanges.

Even more remarkable is that these diaspora donors contributed over seven million dollars to local Chicago projects in 2008, being nearly twice as generous to their adopted country as they are to global projects. This new cadre of international donors is redefining stereotypes of immigrants traditionally seen as “soaking up the dole” or just sending all their earnings back to their native countries. Although diaspora donors continue to have deep ties to their native homeland, sending money back home, they are also building ties and supporting community projects in their Chicago neighborhoods.

The Chicago Global Donors Network, a network of traditional and nontraditional donors that promotes international giving, recently conducted an in-depth survey of over 88 diaspora donors residing in the Chicago area. The ongoing study found many diaspora donors gave generously throughout the AmericasAfrica and Asia with many established donor groups in Mexico and India. Additional research will also be conducted among diaspora donors that give to Europe and the Middle East. As expected, many of these diaspora donors are located in traditional immigrant neighborhoods in Chicago. Surprisingly, however, many are also situated in not so traditional places like the Gold Coast and the collar Chicago suburban neighborhoods.

So who are these diaspora donors? Meet Robert Luma, a social worker and a native of Uganda, who moved to Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood from North Carolina. Robert had raised some money and donated a peanut-shelling machine to his native village near the Ugandan capital, Kampala. However, he recently turned his attention to engage 50 African American youth in his neighborhood and formed them into a neighborhood soccer league. In addition to teaching them the sport, Robert is also trying to develop the young kids’ self-esteem and confidence. Robert commented, “I want to see that they have a bright future ahead of them. They really cannot see it around them, especially in this neighborhood, but there really is hope.” He shared his dreams to mentor and help the youth of his country go to college someday.

Robert is not alone in his fervent spirit of philanthropy. In fact, hundreds of other diaspora donors like Robert are engaging in their communities locally, while giving thousands of dollars back to their native villages and hometowns:

Rita, a retired accountant from Taiwan, had been very active with her local Buddhist temple in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. She recently donated over $200 to aid earthquake victims in Sichuan, China. But what’s more remarkable was that Rosa and the rest of her friends from the Buddhist temple also cook a complete Chinese meal from scratch every third Saturday of each month to feed the homeless at the People’s Church on Lawrence Ave.

Amit, an electrical engineer, recently formed a coalition of sixteen Indian hometown associations that donate regularly to various projects in India. The new coalition is busy planning to increase their donations to India; at the same time they also recently invited a spokesperson from the Greater Chicago Food Depository to figure out ways their new coalition can donate and volunteer their time at a local Chicago food bank. Amit spends his Thursday evenings tutoring a young African American youth in Chicago’s Cabrini Green housing project; he has been doing this for over two years.

Juan Martinez, a former Chicago union organizer, recently contributed funds toward building two new boarding schools in his native village in Michoacán, Mexico. The schools were part of large-scale infrastructure projects in a matching tres por uno (three for one) program with the local Mexican government. In 2008, the Chicago federation of local hometown associations from Michoacán sent close to one million dollars to various development projects in Mexico. At the same time, Juan helped register over 24,000 Latino residents to become U.S. citizens and vote in the last U.S. presidential elections in November.

Are the stories of Robert, Rita, Amit, and Juan uncommon, or do they typify the new face of immigrant America? Does having an ‘American’ identity mean giving up your old ethnic self and only embracing the traditional red, white and blue ‘American’ idea of assimilation? Or is it the new ‘transnational’ identity that characterizes immigrants of today who, are traverse both realms, maintaining connections with the old world while developing strong ties with their new home? These moving personal stories show that perhaps the stereotypical image of immigrants isn’t correct.

Recently, I went back to see Jean Pierre and caught him on his lunch break from driving a cab. He told me he wants to finish his associate’s degree in nursing while he continues raising funds for local school children in Congo. He has also set up a local Congo nonprofit community organization in Chicago to help recently arriving Congo refugees. He said, “I want to be established here in Chicago but I also like to help back home.” Like Robert, Rita, Juan and many others like them, Jean Pierre continues to be connected to the place where he was born and at the same time has found a strong identity and roots here. “I call Chicago home.” ◊

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