Promises to keep: Refugees refuse to forget those they left behind

Published: Tuesday, May 8 2012 8:05 p.m. MDT

Sometimes refugee's generosity helps thousands at a time. For example, since 2005, Salva Dut, founder of the nonprofit Water for South Sudan, has brought clean water to close to 400,000 people. Between classes, 26-six-year-old Flordia Ph.D. student Jacob Atem raised $800,000 to build a health clinic in the small Sudanese village he fled as a child.

Like Bior, many are driven to contribute by their own experiences. Social psychology research shows those who have been in need themselves are more likely to take on a cause, said Paul Piff, a post doctoral scholar at the University of California Berkeley who studies the link between life circumstances and generosity.

"A refugee hasn't just read about the world's troubles, they've been there," Piff said. "Fifty, 60 years of research shows us that's a powerful driving force for action."

A giving heart

While often much more well off than those they left behind, refugees also tend to be on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale in the United States. This may also contribute to their generosity, Piff said. He and his colleagues have done more than 30 studies asking the question, "Who in society is more generous and compassionate?"

"Across the board, those who are less well off tend to be more focused on other people, more empathetic and better able to put themselves in the shoes of another person," Piff said.

In one experiment, for example, participants were given ten credits and asked to decide how many to keep and how many — if any — to give away. They were told the credits could be redeemed for money. On average, those who were less well off gave away 44 percent more credits. In another study, Piff found the poor felt a person should donate a greater share of their salary to charity. While upper-class participants said donating 2.1 percent of income was sufficient, lower-class participants said 5.9 percent was appropriate.

The statistics hold true in real life, too. On average, the bottom 20 percent of American households donate about 4.3 percent of their incomes to charity, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The top 20 percent of households donate 2.1 percent.

"Wealth, to a certain extent, allows you to inhabit an insulated world," Piff said. "The poor rely on deep social bonds to solve everyday problems, which results in an increased focus on other people. With money comes independence and, to some extent, a disconnect."

Bior started mailing money back to Ayuen for school as soon as he arrived in the United States — even before he had found employment. He kept giving while he worked his way through an eight-month computer skills program at the community college (no small feat for a man who had never before seen a computer). He kept giving while working as a low-level technical support specialist and saving for his own degree. He kept giving as a poor college student.

Then, in 2009, he attended a reunion for Sudanese refugees. The central theme of the conference was, "What are you doing to give back?" Bior decided to take his giving to the next level by applying for official nonprofit status, seeking donations and giving out additional scholarships to African orphans.

With that, Student Orphan Aid Program was born.

"I was lucky to come to this country," Bior said. "So many people helped me along the way — people who didn't even know they helped me. As a recipient and a beneficiary of so much kindness, I wanted to reach out."

SOAP is just gathering steam, but Bior has high hopes for the future. He firmly believes in the words he penned to guide his fledgling nonprofit as it grows:

"By helping with one's education, you are helping their family," the organization's mission reads. "By helping their family, you are helping their community. By helping their community, you are helping their nation. By helping their nation, you are helping put an end to global poverty."

He is, after all, living proof the method works.

For more information about SOAP, visit soapinternational.org.

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