For several years now I’ve been sharing posts with several friends from Uganda. The nature of Facebook being what it is, this means that many of my friends have also become friends of Ugandans. While this is unremarkable, what it remarkable is that in recent weeks I’ve seen a significant increase in requests for financial aid from people claiming to be Ugandan Jews in deep distress. Several of these I know to have been fraudulent, and I’ve been forced to block several.
You might wonder why I have allowed myself to establish these “friendship” links. There are several reasons, but all of them relate to my status as an educator specializing in Jewish religion and history.
To the best of my knowledge, the oldest and unquestionably Jewish populations in sub Saharan Africa are in Ethiopia. Members of this community like to attribute their origin to the beginnings of the Israelite kingdoms. Although there is no certain explanation, the preponderance of scholarship is that the community dates to the Middle Ages (about 2,000 years after the era of David) when various Ethiopian tribes were aligning themselves with groups from Europe and Arabia who were establishing relationships and commerce with Ethiopia. Whatever the case may be, the world Jewish community, including Orthodox authorities in Israel, have long accepted the credibility of these Ethiopian claims to Judaism.
In much more recent history several African communities have shown an interest in being identified as Jews. Several of these are located in Uganda, probably the most famous of them calling themselves the Abayudaya. These various groups have had a tumultuous history of being accepted and then rejected by various Jewish and Israeli authorities. There can be no question that the members of the Abayudaya and others seek to observe Judaism in traditional Jewish ways, the only question is whether Israel might regard them as striving to obtain Israeli citizenship or Orthodox authorities quibbling over their Jewish heritage.
Many of these histories and issues are important to me both personally and professionally. That is why I have established Facebook “friendships” with a number of Ugandan and other African people.
Uganda is a poor country in general, and many of those who try to live a Jewish life are among the poorest. They clearly need financial assistance. But there is a huge problem–the number of con artists and scoundrels is too great to consider sending money to individuals. Not only does sending money mean that one might be giving it to a crook, but some of these will even use various tools to try to steal payment cards and checking account information.
What this means is that no one should ever consider sending money to an individual via Western Union, other payment systems, or using debit or credit cards. There is only one exception to this rule: someone you know in person and trust. If you have, perhaps, visited Uganda, or if you have met a Ugandan abroad and spent time with them, in other words, if you have some certainty that the person you are dealing with is a person you can trust, then it can be appropriate to use a wire service to help them out.
How can any of us help these African communities without risking our financial security? The answer is really the same as it is for our own countries. We need to find bona fide charitable organizations which are in the field working to help the people we care about. In the USA, we have services such as Guidestar and Charity Navigator to help with this chore. And many of the charities they cover have a presence internationally, so organizations covered by these agencies may be the safest way to help our Ugandan friends.
Since this comes up with me owing to the Jewish connection, it is reasonable to ask about charities such as United Jewish Appeal (UJA) which obviously have been created to aid Jews in distress around the world. I wish I could tell you that this is a great solution for Uganda, but unfortunately, it is not. UJA can get bogged down with the question of “Who is a Jew” (referred to above), and that can create road blocks for helping communities we’d like to support, but who have not passed muster with Israeli religious authorities. Nevertheless, UJA is a good organization which deserves Jewish support, and hopefully we can persuade our friends in UJA some day to consider helping folks such as the Abayudaya.
All this said, where should we donate besides the UJA? Some of our Ugandan friends have managed to mount “Go Fund Me” campaigns. If you’ve been corresponding with people and feel comfortable with them, this is at least a generally safe way to provide funds. “Go Fund Me” won’t do a thing to verify that the destination is truly charitable, but it is at least a safe way to send money. I strongly recommend using a credit card, not a debit card or check, if you choose to do this.
Aside from GoFundMe, here is a list of International charitable organizations which are active in helping people in Uganda:
One organization stands out as having great reviews wherever I’ve checked. The first URL is for the organization as a whole, the second is for their activities specifically in Uganda:
Global Giving is headquartered in the USA and is therefore subject to all the scrutiny of philanthropic organizations. It has outstanding performance recommendations from both Guidestar and Charity Navigator. What Global Giving does is provide the scrutiny necessary to guarantee that our contributions will be used thoughtfully for the purposes we intend. It does not manage projects in places like Uganda on it own, rather, it works with local organizations. If you go to the Global Giving website (below) you can choose from dozens of projects in Uganda. Searching on the keyword “Uganda” produced 293 projects deemed worthy of donation. Because you are donating to Global Giving, the money will reach the project you want to support without endangering your financial interests.
Originally the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund, UNICEF is now just the United Nations Children’s Fund. UNICEF is the world’s largest providers of vaccines. The mission of UNICEF looks like a menu of items all precisely in the greatest need in Uganda: child health and nutrition, safe water and sanitation, quality
education and skill building, HIV prevention and treatment for mothers
and babies, and the protection of children and adolescents from violence
and exploitation. The USA branch of UNICEF is fully under the scrutiny of charitable organizations and is safe to donate to. UNICEF also has a headquarters for Uganda in Kampala, but when you press the “donate” button you are redirected to the USA offices. I couldn’t find a way to specify that I wanted my donation to benefit projects in Uganda, but I’ll do some additional research on that. Stay tuned.
For now, this is all the time I have, but I intend to return to this and add additional charities as I learn about them.