Nigerian chess prodigy Tani Adewumi, 12, granted asylum in the U.S.



Tanitoluwa “Tani” Adewumi rose to sudden stardom at age 8 for his striking chess skills: He beat 73 opponents and clinched the New York state chess championship for his division. At the time, in 2019, he was living with his family in a homeless shelter.

They had moved to New York from Nigeria in 2017, seeking religious asylum after the family, devoutly Christian, was threatened by the terrorist group Boko Haram and forced to flee their country.

Since Tani’s breakout state championship, his trophies have multiplied. At 10, he was named a National Master, and his current title is FIDE Master, a prestigious designation awarded by the international chess governing body. Along with his chess accolades, his life story became the subject of a book.

But Tani, now 12, just won perhaps his most pivotal feat: He and his family were officially granted asylum in the United States.

“It feels amazing, because it’s been such a long journey,” said Tani, whose older brother showed him a game similar to chess, and he quickly mastered chess when he learned how to play in elementary school. “I’m just grateful that we’ve gotten this opportunity.”

“We feel so relieved,” said Tani’s father, Kayode Adewumi. “Everybody is so happy.”

While the news is thrilling for the whole family, it is especially exciting for Tani, whose chess career was somewhat stalled because of his pending asylum application. Until now, he has not been able to travel to tournaments abroad — stifling his ability to reach his ultimate goal of becoming a Grandmaster.

“That was a very big challenge for him,” Adewumi said.

Matthew Ingber, part of the legal team that worked pro bono on the Adewumi family’s asylum case, said he first learned about Tani’s situation in the summer of 2021.

A bus driver helped a child read. Now he tutors kids for free between routes.

“It was such a compelling story,” said Ingber, a managing partner at Mayer Brown’s New York office.

Despite Tani’s unexpected fame, life has been far from easy for his family — including his parents, Kayode and Oluwatoyin Adewumi, and his brother, Adesina Austin, 19.

The asylum process, the Adewumis learned, can be long and arduous — and sometimes frightening.

“It was a little bit scary,” said Adewumi, who first worked as a dishwasher and an Uber driver upon moving to America and is now a real estate salesman at Douglas Elliman. The family is no longer homeless and lives in an apartment in New York City.

Adewumi and his wife feared their asylum application would be rejected and they would be sent back to Nigeria — a prospect that terrified them, he said.

Their flight was canceled, so 13 strangers got in a van and drove 652 miles

Ingber assembled a team from Mayer Brown to work on the case, including lawyers Justin Perkins and Christopher Mikesh.

“This is not just a story about 8-year-old Tani,” Mikesh said. “It’s also a story about a family who came to the United States with very little and did everything they possibly could to make a life for themselves here.”

“It’s truly inspiring what the family has accomplished,” he added. “To even be a small part of their story is really an honor for us.”

Working alongside attorney Carolina Curbelo, who was already representing the Adewumi family, Mayer Brown became formally involved in the case in early 2022.

The family applied for asylum in 2019 and had an upcoming hearing date. Still, “there was a lot of uncertainty going into this process,” Mikesh said.

“There is always risk associated with any trial,” echoed Ingber, adding that deportation is “always a risk when you’re dealing in these types of asylum cases.”

Ahead of the formal immigration hearing, the lawyers aimed to explore alternative options that would “help the family speed up the process and ensure that they got a favorable outcome,” Mikesh said. “What we thought would be a better idea is to try to convince the government that this case really was open-and-shut, and there was no real question that our clients deserved asylum.”

A stranger called. He had photos of her family from the Holocaust era.

They submitted documents listing the reasons the family was worthy of asylum to the Department of Homeland Security.

“They’re active members of their church, of their community, of their school. They really are a paradigm case for granting asylum,” Ingber explained. “They are contributing in ways that should make us all feel very proud to have them as part of our country.”

The papers took time to move through the system, but before long, there was progress — and it was promising. At an initial hearing in July, an immigration judge indicated that the case would go forward.

“I was just happy in that moment,” said Tani, now in the seventh grade. “I was screaming and shouting.”

The final order of asylum was issued in October, and the family received their asylum cards on Nov. 30.

“It is, in effect, their license to remain in the United States. It allows them to travel internationally,” Ingber said. “It’s their path to the freedom that they wanted.”

“It’s impossible to overstate how impactful this was for the family,” he said. “They don’t feel entitled to it; they feel privileged to be here.”

Indeed, Adewumi said, “we are really thankful for everything,” including the people who contributed funds over the years to support them. The outpouring of kindness prompted the family to launch a foundation in 2020 aimed at helping other refugees and homeless people.

“We really appreciate everything the Americans have done for us,” Adewumi said. “We feel so welcome.”

He said his family will apply for permanent residency in about a year.

Tani, for his part, is elated to finally feel at home and is more motivated than ever to reach his goal of earning the Grandmaster title — the highest designation in chess, aside from World Champion.

“I know I will do it, and I know it will happen,” he said. “The future is bright. It’s full of color and good things.”


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