Tani Adewumi, now 10 years old, came to the U.S. with his family in 2017. They were seeking religious asylum after being threatened by Boko Haram in Nigeria. Tani learned to play chess at his school in New York City, and what happened next was more than he could have ever imagined.
Tani Adewumi was 6 years old the day the terrorists came knocking.
“Everybody in the whole world knows what you call Boko Haram,” Tani’s father, Kayode Adewumi, said. “These are Islamic fighters that are killing people in Nigeria. Very, very unfortunately, they came to my office.”
In December 2016, three men entered Kayode’s printing shop in Abuja, Nigeria, and asked for 25,000 copies of a poster that read, “No to Western education. Kill all Christians.” Above the message, Kayode spotted the unmistakable logo of Boko Haram.
The Islamist terrorist group has murdered thousands of people and is known for kidnapping women and children. In 2014, Boko Haram abducted nearly 300 girls from a Nigerian boarding school. Many of them are still missing.
Kayode knew his life would be in danger if he refused to print the posters. But he refused to be complicit in the evil. He is a devout Christian, along with his wife, Oluwatoyin, who converted from Islam. They’re raising their sons to love and serve Jesus Christ. To them, the threat on the poster was not only horrifying; it was personal.
While Kayode and Oluwatoyin discussed what to do, they protected Tani and his older brother, Austin, from the fear that had descended upon their home.
“I was very young,” Tani said. “I didn’t know much.”
Kayode instructed his employees to shut down the printing machines. He planned to tell the three men his machines had malfunctioned, “just to make peace so that I don’t have to have anything to do with them,” he said. “Because these people kill.”
When the men returned the next day, Kayode politely explained that he would not be able to do the job.
“One of them goes to look at the machine,” Kayode recalled, “and he says, ‘You are stupid. Don’t you know that we know your trick?’”
The men eventually left, but Kayode knew they would be back.
‘If Not for God, I Don’t Know’
A short time later, there was a knock on the Adewumis’ door at night. Kayode wasn’t home, and Oluwatoyin opened the door, thinking it was him.
Three men rushed inside and shouted for Oluwatoyin to lie facedown on the floor. As she lay there with her hands over her head, she thought about her boys sleeping in the next room. She could see a pistol out of the corner of her eye.
“They said they will use me as a message to my husband,” Oluwatoyin said. “I don’t know the kind of message they were really referring to. Maybe to kill or to rape. I don’t know. I was just praying that God would save me.”
They said they will use me as a message to my husband.The men tore the room apart, and Oluwatoyin realized they were searching for Kayode’s computer. They thought he had kept a copy of their poster so he could turn it over to the police. As Oluwatoyin lay there praying, the men discussed what to do with her. Out of nowhere, she found herself speaking an Arabic phrase she learned as a child: “I’m begging you! I’m begging you!”
One of the men asked if she was a Muslim. Desperate to save her family, Oluwatoyin answered, “Yes.” The room fell silent, and the men left.
“If not for God, I don’t know,” Oluwatoyin said. “Because I believe that God has a purpose in our life. I really thank God that day went well for me.”
The family survived two more visits from the terrorists, who came in the night, pounding on the door and bellowing death threats. They even tracked the Adewumis down after they closed their printing business and moved to another city.
Kayode remembers the third and final visit a short time after he thought he had outrun his enemies. “Open! Open! You will go to heaven today!” they shouted. “We traced you down again. You can’t tell us that you are not in the house!”
Open! Open! You will go to heaven today!That night, Kayode thought the door might not withstand the assault.
“The only weapon we have is prayer,” he said. He and Oluwatoyin dropped to their knees and cried out to God for protection. The minutes ticked by before the men gave up again. The Adewumis had survived another terrifying visit, but how could they continue to live like this?
Fleeing to America
Months earlier, before their lives were in danger, the Adewumis had acquired visas to visit the U.S. for a vacation. They didn’t know how important those visas would be, but God had been moving ahead of them. In June 2017, the Adewumis flew across the ocean to America.
We were never angry with God.Oluwatoyin had an uncle in Dallas who encouraged them to stay as long as they needed. But his wife, an American, grew tired of her houseguests.
“She sent a text to me very early in the morning, around 5 a.m.,” Oluwatoyin said. “She sent me a text that if we didn’t leave she’s going to call the police. And it was very tough. Very, very, very tough.”
The Adewumis had escaped Boko Haram only to be rejected by their family in America. It was almost too much to bear.
“We were never angry with God,” Oluwatoyin said. “We cannot be angry with God because we believe that God is in control. And we believe everybody must have challenges in life. Life cannot be golden streets. There will be a down time, a challenge time. And that time was our challenge time.”
With five days to get out of Dallas, Kayode opened up his Facebook page and started contacting everyone he knew in the U.S. After many rejections, he got a lead. A Nigerian friend in New York City said his church might be able to help.
New York City
The Adewumis traveled to New York in December 2017 and spent their first two nights in a pastor’s basement in Queens. He helped the family apply for temporary housing in a shelter.
A short time later, Kayode, Oluwatoyin, Austin and Tani moved into a hotel-turned-homeless-shelter in midtown Manhattan. There wasn’t a room big enough for the four of them to live together, so the parents slept in one room with the boys on the floor above them.
The only job Kayode could get was washing dishes. He worked all night for $6 an hour. Both he and Oluwatoyin also cleaned houses.
“But God is on His throne,” Kayode said. “That’s what really saved us to where we are today. And we believe that we have God … we have everything. Somebody with God is rich.”
Tani and his older brother Austin enrolled in New York City public schools, and Tani started attending P.S. 116 (a public school) in Manhattan. A few times a week, a chess teacher visited Tani’s class to teach the game.
“And I was like, ‘Oh, I like this game,’” Tani said. “I like recess better. But I really like chess second.”
Before long, Tani talked about little else other than his hopes of joining P.S. 116’s chess club. His parents wanted to say “yes,” but they were discouraged by the $300 fee to join. There was no way they could afford it. Oluwatoyin emailed the director and explained the situation.
Russ Makofsky, the chess club director, responded immediately. “No problem,” he typed. Tani could have a full scholarship.
“I saw that there was a zero balance. I was so happy,” Oluwatoyin said.
Tani joined the chess club in February 2018, two months after moving to New York. The coaches and students quickly welcomed Tani into the club.
“They were nice, really nice,” Tani said. “I liked them very much.”
Tani had a lot to learn. But at just 7 years old, he was exceptionally driven. After school and chess club, he and Austin would stay up practicing at night.
“At first, I was just blundering my queen all the time,” Tani said. “But then, they taught me more and more. I started moving my queen out early and started playing opening moves.”
“And from there, he started being good within six months,” Oluwatoyin said. “He started winning. Coming in first, first, first … all these tournaments.” After each game, Tani would stop to thank God.
The P.S. 116 community rallied around his family. They donated winter coats to the Adewumis and provided lodging and transportation for Tani’s chess tournaments. His coaches saw something special in him, and they were quick to share their knowledge and their kindness.
In March 2019, after just one year of playing, Tani made it to the state chess championship. It was a long shot—New York is home to some of the best young players in the country.
“I was not nervous,” Tani said. “You know, most of the kids I played were so nervous. That’s why they lost. But you have to calm down. Relax. Be chill.”
Tani won all three of his games on the first day of the weekend-long tournament in Saratoga Springs. Then he won two games the following day. There was just one game left. If he won or took a draw, he’d win the tournament.
“If I lost, I would still get second place,” Tani said. “But I really wanted to get that first place.”
Oluwatoyin was behind the scenes, praying. “God, it is on You.”
Tani made a serious blunder during the last game. Knowing he was in trouble, he put on his bravest, most confident expression and offered the other boy a draw. He took it. Tani had won the New York State Championship in his age group.
“I was very happy when I won, and had so many things in my stomach to let out, like the butterflies,” he said.
“I was so, so happy,” Oluwatoyin said. “People were coming to me congratulating me. Some parents were coming to me and asking, ‘How are you doing it? It’s just one year! How are you managing it?’ I said, ‘It’s God.’”
Dreams Coming True
In the weeks that followed, Coach Russ got in touch with the New York Times. Tani’s story went out around the globe. Readers fell in love with the 8-year-old refugee who had beaten the odds while living in a homeless shelter.
They want to serve the God we are serving. Coach Russ’s next move was setting up a GoFundMe page for the family, in the hopes of getting them out of the shelter and into a home. The initial goal was set at $10,000. After a Today show appearance, a visit with former President Bill Clinton and countless news articles, people had donated more than $250,000 … in addition to a car and a rent-free apartment for one year. It was more than the Adewumis could have ever imagined.
“We see so many messages saying, ‘I really want the God you are serving,’” Oluwatoyin said. “Yes. They want to serve the God we are serving. We thank God we are serving the Living God. The God that listens. The God that sustains. So, we believe in Him. That is all that we have our trust in.”
The Adewumis gratefully accepted an apartment offered to them in Manhattan, gave 10 percent of the donations to their church and started a foundation in Tani’s name. The Tanitoluwa Adewumi Foundation helps children like Tani fulfill their dreams through chess. The family also just published a book. It’s called My Name Is Tani … And I Believe in Miracles. Tani’s face lights up a copy of the book on the coffee table inside their new home. A Bible is close by.
“I say ‘Thank God,’ because I know God can do anything for me and for my family, and that is what He did,” Tani said. “I feel very happy. I mean, what can be better?”
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