In honor of Black History Month, this story is part of a series highlighting the invaluable contributions of African-Americans and the broader African diaspora to UNICEF's work to support and protect children around the world.
Why did you decide to get involved in humanitarian work?
BISMACK BIYOMBO: I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I grew up in the Congo, and given the situation there, and all the kids who are living in difficult conditions, I thought, what can I do to help the next generation and change the future of the country, over the long term. Home is the place that has my heart.
How did you get started?
BISMACK BIYOMBO: About a year after I moved to the U.S. (after being drafted to the NBA) I was about to fly home for a visit, and I couldn’t sleep. When I got back to the Congo that’s when I set up my first basketball camp, and once I had that camp I slept like a baby. That was in 2012.
I started with 25 kids, and now we are reaching thousands of kids in three different cities, through the basketball camps, and with scholarships. We have given over 40 scholarships for kids to go to high school in the U.S. for a year or two, sometimes three. They need that time to integrate and catch up on their English before they start college.
I am trying to provide a better environment, new opportunities and hope.
But not every kid can study abroad. Most will stay in Congo and many can't afford to go to school or they drop out along the way. These kids are the future and they can help move the country forward. I think about what I wish I could have had when I was a kid there. I am trying to provide a better environment, new opportunities and hope.
We have given about 5,000 scholarships to kids to go to school in the DRC. We've also built a school in Goma, and we are almost finished building one in Lumbumbashi, the town in the south where I grew up. Next, we will build one in Kinshasha, the capital.
I've invested my own money, and we also have other donors. But it’s not enough to raise money, you have to build a sustainable program. So the kids who can afford to pay fees also come to our school and that helps cover the expenses, the maintenance, the teachers’ salaries and all of that. We’re also jumping into medical care. We're refurbishing three hospitals and donating a clinical pod just outside Goma, in an area that needs to get something up and running immediately.
And all this work is done through your charitable foundation?
BISMACK BIYOMBO: Yes, and my parents help me. They’re overseeing a lot of things. They had seven kids — I have three brothers and three sisters — and growing up in the Congo, we didn’t have enough, but my parents persevered. They showed us hard work, what that really means. They taught us how to love, how to embrace people. And they always managed to give to others. I learned that from them. They love helping people. They have been my role models from Day One.
As a UNICEF Supporter and humanitarian, what keeps you going? Why UNICEF?
BISMACK BIYOMBO: I’ve seen UNICEF operating in South Africa many times (where most recently I went to play in the NBA Africa game), and I had a chance to visit some programs in the Congo. I appreciate what UNICEF is doing, the goodness that comes out of that — how many children's lives they are able to save and how many lives they are able to touch worldwide. UNICEF has such a big presence, they are able to reach out to so many, in so many different places around the world.
Had a privilege to be at the opening of @sauti_kuu’s new sports and education facility in Kenya . To be able to See #AumaObama work it’s overwhelming. This is just proving that Africa is moving in the right direction! More here: iol.co.za/sport/basketba… ------ @asphaltchronicles
You have a particular interest in Yemen, is that right?
BISMACK BIYOMBO: Yes, Yemen is part of my journey. I lived there for a few months and played in a tournament there once (when I was 16) and I would like to go back. I also want to see if there is some way I can get involved in helping the children who are suffering there. I like to travel to different places, even so-called dangerous places. No place scares me. It is rewarding to see people find ways to survive in crucial times, a way to work together; to see organizations like UNICEF come in and help a country get reestablished. I enjoy the learning process and admire all that UNICEF is doing to help children in Yemen.
What advice do you have for others looking to make a difference?
BISMACK BIYOMBO: I've always believed — if you make it to the top — in reaching back and pulling others up. And rather than keep talking about problems, you have to be part of the solution. I think, the more people I can help get out there working for their communities and families, the better off we'll all be.
And I want people to hear the positive side of Congo. We have great human resources. We have our natural resources, and there is a dark side to that, but there's a brighter side to our country too. I encourage donors to come, get on a plane, have fun with us. See the beauty. Experience the food, the people, the excitement. Come see the mountains, come see the gorillas. You can stay overnight with them in Virunga National Park. I’ve done it myself. I walk the talk (laughs).
In the Congo, at end of the day, there are a lot of people helping us get on our feet. We are like a baby learning how to walk, and once we walk we can walk through the door and on to better things.
Within each of us exists the potential to contribute positively to society. On this amazing trip with @righttoplayintl in Thailand, from the group of kids we helped get out of their refugee camp for the first time to visit Bangkok, to the kids in the detention center, to my visit of Umpiem refugee camp at the border of Thailand and Burma. what I have learned from them is that they never let the world change their smile, and more importantly they still dream BIG and face any obstacle coming their way, with hope and courage! I hope the rest of the world never forgets about them.. #Riseandshine
For Black History Month, UNICEF USA is highlighting the invaluable contributions of African-Americans to UNICEF's work to support and protect children around the world. What does Black History Month mean to you?
BISMACK BIYOMBO: In Africa, we never spoke about Black History Month (laughs). So when I came here to the U.S. I had to educate myself, so I would know the story of the U.S., what people have been through, how things were done in the past. So for me, personally, we need to educate the next generation of young kids. Kids know it’s Black History Month but they are not informed about what that truly means. It's also an opportunity to unify people.
Top photo: Bismack Biyombo visits with kids in Goma, DRC, where his charitable foundation runs basketball camps and provides education scholarships for kids. © Photo courtesy of Bismack Biyombo