U.S. Immigrants Give Back to Their Homelands

Kaylie Gazman

hide captionKaylie Gazman of Manila sits inside a balikbayan box sent from relatives back in California.

Mandalit del Barco, NPR

The town of Malinao, on the Philippine island of Panay, is a community of less than 40,000 people. But in Malinao, as in villages and cities across the Philippines, a significant proportion of residents have packed up and headed overseas, in search of job opportunities and a better life.

These Malinaon immigrants may have left their native land thousands of miles behind, but their presence is still felt at home. That's because Malinoan expatriates scattered across America have formed a social network aimed at keeping them in touch with their roots. Through a U.S.-based group known as the Malinao Brotherhood Improvement Society, they've pooled their resources to fund projects back home such as hospice care for the elderly, scholarships for young Malinoans, and the refurbishing of parks, plazas and churches. The group is currently considering funding a computer lab for the local high school and a community center for seniors.

The Malinoan experience is just one of the many ways in which U.S. immigrants stay connected to their communities of origin and make a difference back home. Some follow the traditional path of sending cash and consumer goods back to relatives. Others — like the members of the many hometown associations formed by Mexican Americans — steer their efforts toward public works like the building of wells, roads and health-care clinics.

In a four-week-long series called "Global Returns," NPR explores the many ways in which immigrants in the United States give back to their home countries — and sometimes, become forces for change.

The Philippines and the 'Balikbayan' Box

The series begins Dec. 23 with a look at the balikbayan box, a special box that Filipino immigrants fill up with goods to be sent back home duty-free.

The Philippine government formally began encouraging emigration as a way to boost its economy in 1974, with a program that places Filipino workers overseas. Today, about in 1 in 10 Filipinos has left home to seek work abroad. Last year, the money they sent back accounted for 10 percent of the Philippines' gross domestic product.

The government-sponsored balikbayan program (balikbayan means "a return to one's country" in Tagalog, one of the major languages spoken in the Philippines) began as a way to encourage Filipinos abroad to help poor rural relatives in the Philippines. A whole cottage industry now exists to help Filipino immigrants send these boxes to their hometowns, filled with cash, used clothes, toys and other household goods that are, for the most part, available in the Philippines but beyond the budgets of most folks there.

Mandalit del Barco reports that, for Filipino immigrants, the notion of the balikbayan box is tied up with nostalgia for home; for their relatives in the Philippines, it is an emblem of absent loved ones and a better life.

Ghana: Training a Generation of Leaders

Our second story, airing Dec. 30, takes us to Ghana, where former Microsoft employee Patrick Awuah founded Ashesi University three years ago. A native of Ghana, Awuah says what Africa needs most is leadership.

The university arms students with a solid background in the liberal arts and in science and technology. That's no mean feat in a country where the public telecommunications system is shaky at best and where, until three years ago, private data networks, which rely on satellites to connect to the outside world, were effectively illegal.

But what really makes Ashesi unique in Africa is its focus on ethics. Awuah says he wants to train a new generation of ethical and entrepreneurial business leaders who can become an engine of growth for Ghana. Reporter Ofeibea Quist-Arcton looks at how Awuah is organizing donors and experts in America to help move forward his vision for Ashesi — and for Ghana.

Mexican Immigrants: Fostering Opportunity Back Home

The third report in the series, airing Jan. 6, takes us to Mexico, where remittances are second only to oil as a source of foreign exchange. (Mexican immigrants sent an estimated $16 billion back home last year.) Most of that money goes to individual families and their immediate need for food, clothing and housing.

But as Lourdes Garcia-Navarro and Carrie Kahn report, substantial amounts of money are being funneled through hometown associations in the United States that coordinate with civic associations in Mexico to sponsor development projects.

Grupo Indaparapeo, based in Chicago and California, is the hometown association of a small farming community in the Mexican state of Michoacan, which has a long history of migration. Recently, the association began an innovative scholarship project for students to attend high school and college in Morelia, the state capital.

The group's members are under no illusion that students will settle in Indaparapeo or even in Mexico after graduation. But the scholarship requires students to perform volunteer work that will help the community. The project, which began in 2004, is generating a great deal of interest among immigrant communities and hometown associations looking to sponsor programs that actually create opportunity back home.

Afghanistan: Giving Through 'Street Therapy'

Not all immigrant giving can be measured in dollars, as Jennifer Ludden reports in the final installment of our series, airing Jan. 13. For Afghan immigrant Maliha Zulfacar, the urge to give is also a drive to heal.

Zulfacar immigrated to the United States after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. She now splits her time between the United States, where she's an assistant professor of ethnic studies at California Polytechnic State University, and Afghanistan. Funded by a small grant, Zulfacar is working with students at Kabul University on an oral history project, recording everything from war stories to tips on how to survive on the streets.

Zulfacar hopes this collection of stories will help Afghanis understand the impact that three decades of war and dislocation have had on their society. She says she herself wanders the streets with a tape recorder. "Nobody can stop talking," she says. "It's therapy for them, and it's therapy for me."

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