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Moving Forward, Giving Back

U.S. Immigrants Become Homeland Philanthropists

By Phuong Ly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 4, 2004; Page A01

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 left behind.

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 way.

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 $7.5 million.

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 education."

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.

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