Staten Island, New York – Jennifer Brumskine, a native of Liberia, is pacing the sidelines of a high school football field watching a soccer tournament she organized. Teams Liberia and Nigeria are battling it out for the right to move on to the next round. Liberia won in a blow out.
Off to the far side the field under shade-bearing trees sat their friends and family, all casually outfitted out in their American, non-ethnic clothing, cheering when goals were scored and barking at the referee for calls they felt were missed. On the opposite end was a woman selling African dishes in Styrofoam carryout containers. The smell of Ghana was in the air.
In a borough where nearly 80 percent of the residents self-identify as white, this was not a typical Saturday afternoon.
“When I first got here, you could hardly find another black person,” said Brumskine, who has lived on Staten Island for the past 14 years. Though that is quickly changing.
There were twelve other teams in the tournament, dubbed the Staten Island World Cup Diversity Games, representing their countries of origin, including Mexico and Albania. However, the majority of the participants, mostly high school students and weekend warriors in their twenties, trace their heritage to Liberia, Sierra Leon, Nigeria and other African nations.
According to recent US Census data, the number of residents on Staten Island who self-identify as African-American or black increased by 12 percent. Why Africans and other immigrants favor this sleepy, suburban borough over other parts of the city is not exactly clear.
Many of the Africans interviewed for this story say they prefer the Island’s quiet, green landscape to the traffic-filled, concrete jungle of Manhattan. Others cite affordable rent.
Rufus Arkoi, who coached the winning Liberian team, put it more plainly. “Most of the immigrants coming on Staten Island just want to survive,” he says. “They have left some country where the living standard is way down. Here they can switch on the light and turn on the faucet and get water. Those are luxuries. So how much more are you going to ask for?”
Liberians, who rank high among the Africans coming to the Island, came in large numbers during the civil wars that took place in the early 1990s and 2000s. (Though neither Arkoi nor Brumskine are asylum seekers or war refugees.)
Staten Island’s growing racial demographics have not been without their racial conflicts. Last year, multiple attacks against Hispanics by young black males drew media attention that strained relations between both communities.
Those conflicts, Brumskine says, are what motivated her to organize this tournament. “After watching the 2010 World Cup and I saw how Mexico and all of these different countries were together, I thought one of the best ways to bring people together is through sports.”
Her efforts have gained the recognition of local politicians like Staten Island Assemblyman Mathew Titone who encouraged residents to support the tournament.
“I thought it was important to try to spread the word about the Diversity games because these games highlight what is best about Staten Island — diverse groups coming together to celebrate cultural awareness through sport in a spirit of community.”
As competitive as the many of the games were this Saturday afternoon, players of the opposing teams were exchanging friendly conversations during halftime breaks and even posing for photos together.
“You notice that during the games, the players are very aggressive and yelling and fighting at each other,” Brumskine says. “But afterwards, they are shaking hands and hugging.”
Arkoi, who settled on Staten Island more than 20 years ago, once headed a non-profit, Roza Productions, that provided academic training to African arrivals until funding dried up. He also ran soccer clubs, which he says helped to unite young Africans on the Island and keep them out of trouble.
Many of the young people who came through his doors lacked basic reading skills, he says. “Some of them were 12-years-old and had never been to school,” Arkoi says.
Laura Cooper,23, a Liberian native who participated in Arkoi’s program as a teenager, has since teamed up with other former female participants to form a group called Women of Prestige. One of the activities the group organizes each year is the Miss Africa Pageant. It was once named the Miss Liberia Pageant but it was renamed to welcome contestants all African nations.
Cooper, who was 11-years-old when she arrived on Staten Island, feels such activities will help young African girls in the borough avoid trouble and build character.
“This is a small community and people really don’t have much to do,” Cooper said in an earlier interview. “That’s when you see people get into trouble, teenage girls getting pregnant. And you have beautiful girls. But its just takes somebody to say ‘You know what? You can do this. You’re beautiful. You have talent. How about you try this?’”
As the tournament finished up for the day and the afternoon faded into the evening hour, many of the African spectators packed up their lawn chairs and left for theirs homes scattered across Staten Island. Bruskine says she is very comfortable here despite the racial disparity and does not see a reason to leave.
“As a Liberian, I get treated like a queen,” she says. “I can call my councilwoman up and she will call me back. I can call the borough president up and he will call me back. And the comfort level we feel on Staten Island as Liberians, we haven’t felt it in any other place in the City of New York. We have access.
“We have the trees, too,” she says pointing to the trees that surrounding the soccer field. “You cannot take the trees away from the Africans.”