On a recent Sunday afternoon, a group of teenage boys scattered across a Brooklyn soccer field. It was their first game of the season, and as they set up their first play, it was hard to believe that just a couple of years ago, more than half the members of the team were spending their afternoons with machine guns draped across their chests, fighting the civil war in Liberia.
Now these teens and their families are trying to make new lives for themselves on Staten Island. Thanks to the work of Rufus Arkoi, soccer has become these boys’ main outlet for an otherwise rocky adjustment.
“Many of these kids here now actually fought war,” says Arkoi from his makeshift office in the back of the storefront community center he opened in Park Hill, Staten Island, in 1999. “They’ve experienced killing people, they’ve experienced the worst of violence.” For that reason, he adds, “nothing here was hard for them to do.”
Arkoi, now 39, first moved to New York in the early 1990s as a fashion designer-turned-engineering student and saw teenage boys and girls from Liberia try everything: drugs, prostitution. After gunshot wounds put three young friends in wheelchairs, he felt he had to return to work he had done for years before coming to the U.S. “In Africa, the number-one way to attract a youngster is through sports.” It certainly worked for him: He played soccer as a child and, until he left Liberia at age 25, managed teams that produced some of the world’s top players, including No. 1-ranked George Weah.
So in 1994, he founded the first American branch of Roza (“survivor”) Promotions, a service organization he started as a soccer league in Monrovia in 1981. Since then, his oldest boys’ team has won the New York state championship. Arkoi has also won the trust of older Africans around the city, who now go to the center for help finding jobs, securing public benefits, learning English and computer skills, or just adjusting to American life.
“Many of these people lived through at least seven years of war,” says David D. Kpormakpor, who was acting president of Liberia from 1994 to 1997, and now sits on the board of Roza. “This is an indispensable service.”
With about 6,000 Liberians in Richmond County alone, there is certainly a lot of demand. And as civil war and revolution continue to be a threat back home, more refugees are likely to arrive very soon. In February, President Charles Taylor declared a state of emergency as rebel groups increased their attacks on him and forced thousands from their homes near the capital. Arkoi hopes to get the president on the phone–it wouldn’t be the first time–to urge him not to cancel upcoming elections. Depending on what happens, he says, a two-year stint in Liberian government may be in his near future.
In the meantime, when not teaching special education at I.S. 27 or coaching soccer, Arkoi spends a lot of his time in Housing Court and housing management offices. “Housing is the number-one issue,” he says, noting the change from a decade ago, when affordable apartments first drew Liberians to Staten Island. Now, he says, refugees bring many relatives, and pile up to 15 people into three bedrooms.
He is also going for his Master’s degree in special ed, a field he first encountered while fighting to keep principals from funneling new African immigrants into those classes. As an aide at P.S. 57 on Staten Island, he says he saw too many teachers taking kids out of regular classrooms because they were misbehaving. “I knew some of those kids,” he says. “I coached them.” He convinced the principal to place them with other teachers, and talked to the students about American customs–you have to listen to instructions, and you can’t urinate in the playground.
He’ll do anything, he says, to get these kids educated. He gives older Liberians $25 for signing up for the GED, $100 for registering for college. “Being black is already a curse, being African is adding insult to injury,” he says. “The way out is education.”