Moving Forward, Giving
U.S. Immigrants Become Homeland Philanthropists
By Phuong Ly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2004
Whatever money he could spare from his earnings as a
janitor, Ca Van Tran would roll into thin sticks, hide
in tubes of toothpaste and mail to his parents in Vietnam.
His methods were rudimentary, but they helped him fulfill
a duty many immigrants meet: supporting the family they
Nearly 30 years later, the onetime war refugee has become
a prosperous restaurant owner with a five-acre estate
in Great Falls. And he's sending back money in a far different
Tran founded Vietnam Assistance for the Handicapped,
a registered U.S. charity that raised $1.7 million last
year for wheelchairs, artificial limbs and job training
for land-mine victims in his homeland. After his trips
back to Vietnam, he realized that it was no longer enough
to help just his family.
In Vietnam, "you don't have a tradition of charity
for the masses," said Tran, 53, whose office is decorated
with a large photo of his grinning children next to one
of a young beggar in his former country. "There's
such a pressing need there. These are people who don't
have anything. We can't even call them poor."
A generation of maturing immigrants is graduating from
supporting family members to financing large philanthropic
initiatives that fuel development and social change. The
economies of Third World countries have long been propped
up by small-dollar transfers that the World Bank estimates
add up to more than $70 billion a year globally.
Now, however, immigrant organizations are funding programs
such as AIDS education in Brazil, small business grants
for women in India and teacher training in the Philippines.
"What we have today in the way of immigration, we
didn't have 15 to 20 years ago," said Rob Buchanan,
director of international programs for the Council on
Foundations, a D.C.-based group of philanthropic organizations.
"The communities are changing. . . . Many are doing
well, and these folks are beginning to think about their
legacy. They want to do something for their communities."
Increasingly, the power of transnational philanthropy
is being recognized by governments. When President Bill
Clinton asked India's prime minister what help he could
provide after a devastating earthquake in 2001, the Indian
leader had this request: Tap into the wealth of Indian
Americans. Shortly afterward, the American India Foundation
was formed in Silicon Valley and in its first year raised
Tran's foundation in McLean began in 1991 with a little
over $10,000 and shipped wheelchairs and prosthetics overseas.
Today, the group has its own factories in Vietnam to manufacture
the items -- and give jobs to the disabled.
Many contributors are Vietnamese Americans, who, like
Tran, have put aside their antipathy for the communist
government for charity's sake. Other supporters include
U.S. veterans groups and politicians such as Sen. Patrick
J. Leahy (D-Vt.) and Rep. Frank R. Wolf (R-Va.).
Tran -- who said he was taken into custody in Vietnam
and questioned by suspicious government officials during
one of his first trips to deliver wheelchairs -- now meets
regularly with top ministers to brainstorm on how to improve
life for the disabled.
Bach Ngoc Chien, press attache for the Embassy of Vietnam
in Washington, said, "Of course, it's the main responsibility
of the government to take care of its people, but we encourage
the contributions of individuals and organizations."
Latin American immigrants often form "hometown clubs"
that raise money for a cause in the old country, but the
organizations typically are not as formally structured
and do not apply for tax-exempt status. That stage is
expected to be reached eventually as their projects --
and the immigrants' income -- grow.
Some academics say, however, that too much emphasis on
overseas giving can dilute the loyalty the immigrants
have to the United States.
"It reflects a commitment of elsewhere, rather than
here," said Stanley Renshon, a political science
professor at the City University of New York who is writing
a book, "The Fifty Percent American." "It's
not good for a democracy that depends on the connection
of its people to its government," he said.
In some cases, the immigrant charities, particularly those
aimed at Middle Eastern countries, have been linked to
terrorist groups and have been investigated by the FBI.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, U.S. officials have
frozen more than $136 million in assets of Muslim charities,
effectively shuttering several groups. Last month, the
FBI said it was investigating a terrorist group's alleged
ties to a recent D.C. event billed as a fundraiser for
Iranian earthquake victims that drew nearly 3,000 participants,
including a Pentagon official who gave a speech. The event's
primary organizer, the Iranian American Community of Northern
Virginia, said the terrorist allegations are unfounded.
The fundraiser took place a few weeks after the U.S. government
made a three-month special exception to its economic sanctions
against Iran so charities could raise money for earthquake
victims. Under the sanctions, no money could be sent to
Iran, only books and medical supplies.
Many immigrants say that scrutiny is welcomed but that
scandal in one organization should not taint other charities
or bring prejudice against a particular group.
Sussan Tahmasebi, director of the Rockville office of
the London-based Science and Arts Foundation, which focuses
on education in Iran, said opening the doors to overseas
charity helps fight rather than foster terrorism.
She said the foundation has paid for Iranian teachers
and students to attend international educational competitions
-- their first trips outside Iran. A few Iranian American
college students, sponsored by the foundation, have traveled
to Iran to teach English.
Recently, the Rockville office raised $20,000 for earthquake
victims. If the restrictions on charity to Iran were lifted
permanently, far more could be done, she said.
"Expatriates can work as a bridge of understanding
between their two cultures," Tahmasebi said. "The
increased interaction brings a level of democracy and
Farrah Javid, a board member of Children of Persia, based
in suburban Maryland, said groups like hers are taking
their cues from U.S. culture.
"You see people from America doing charity work in
other countries," said Javid, a Gaithersburg fashion
consultant who, like many Iranian Americans, immigrated
soon after the Islamic revolution in 1979. "I sometimes
think we're doing this as Americans rather than as Iranians."
Some immigrants say that building a better standard of
living in their homelands will mean others won't leave
-- or turn to terrorism.
Angel de Dios, a chemistry professor at Georgetown
University, emigrated from the Philippines in 1987 in
search of a better education and job opportunities. During
his first years in this country, he sent money home to
pay his siblings' school fees.
Then, last year, he spent $15,000 to create a public computer
lab in his mother's home town. "I wanted my donation
to go a long way," said de Dios, who funneled his
donation through a San Francisco-based organization called
Give2Asia. "I just didn't want to give them money;
I wanted them to be able to help themselves."
Tran's goal is to make it possible for more social
changes to come from inside Vietnam. In the past few years,
his group has held conferences in Vietnam to promote rights
for the disabled, and support groups have been formed
for disabled veterans.
Tran said he keeps in touch with one of the first people
he helped, a former paratrooper who had lost both legs
during the war and was forced to beg for food. The man,
who received a wheelchair from Tran's group, now works
at an ice factory.
Perhaps one day, Tran mused, the man's children or grandchildren
will become philanthropists.