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A Pick-Up Soccer Group Is Helping Welcome Refugees to New York City

A weekly pickup game in a public park in Queens has become a powerful hub for organizing solidarity with asylum seekers.

Asylum seekers from Mauritania pose for a photo after a Wednesday night scrimmage in September 2023 at Grover Cleveland Park in Ridgewood Queens.

Every Wednesday night, members of Woodbine Soccer, a collective of soccer players, haul a generator, lights and goals to a local public park in Ridgewood, Queens. About 50 regulars of varying skill levels and backgrounds trickle in and we set up the field together for a few hours’ worth of scrimmaging. Among them are friends we’ve made from Ecuador, Italy, the U.K. and Honduras — to name a few — and most recently, we’ve started playing with about 20 asylum seekers from Mauritania, a small West African country that is reminiscent of an apartheid state.

Soccer, the most popular sport in the world, helps us transcend language barriers, connect across cultures and, at its simplest, have fun together. Farook, a Black Mauritanian asylum seeker who is using a pseudonym to protect himself from state repression, said he looks forward to the games every week.

“If it were up to me, we would play every night,” Farook said in French. “On the soccer field we’re acknowledged as humans. There is friendship, there is laughter.”

Farook had been an active member of the Initiative for the Resurgence of the Abolitionist Movement (IRA), an organization fighting against the enslavement of an estimated 20 percent of the Mauritanian population, despite slavery being formally abolished in 1981. Police tear gassed him and fractured his arm at a recent protest, and he was forced to leave his wife and children behind after learning he was on a list of people the government planned on arresting. “This is a regime that will not hesitate to torture and kill when its citizens dare to fight for human rights and freedoms,” he said.

For centuries, lighter-skinned Arab-speaking populations have enslaved darker skinned Afro-Mauritanian and Haratin people in the region, which was colonized by France in 1904. French colonialism further exacerbated ethnic tensions when it arbitrarily drew Mauritania’s borders, forcing nationhood upon ethnically distinct and historically antagonistic communities.

France also ensured the new state structure guaranteed a flow of profits for capitalists, according to the Algerian anthropologist Mahfoud Bennoune. “The post-independence state apparatus inherited from the pre-1960 period not only was kept intact in its basic structure, function and finality,” he writes, “but was perfected and strengthened in order to preserve the interests of multinational corporations with only a gradual change in the political, administrative and military personnel in favour of the Indigenous emergent predominant classes.”

Since independence, state policies have reinforced and exacerbated racial and caste hierarchies through a “forced Arabization” process. The Beydanes, a light-skinned Arab ethnic group, purged many Afro-Mauritanians from government positions in the 60s and 70s, and have since deprived many of their citizenship, burned their villages, confiscated land and livestock, and arbitrarily arrested and executed people.

“If you’re Black in Mauritania you are systematically suppressed. Your rights are taken away,” said Nico, another Black Mauritanian asylum seeker and soccer player who prefers a pseudonym due to fears of state repression. “Government officials are holding people in slavery, but not always in the most obvious ways. They’ll have people in indentured servitude, and say it isn’t slavery, for example.”

Farook, Nico and the others have not found the peace and security they were hoping for when they arrived in the U.S. several months ago, however. Instead, they find themselves crammed alongside 500 other men into one of New York City’s makeshift “respite sites” on Stockton Street in Bushwick, Brooklyn, an unfinished building that even lacked showers during the summer months. In September, the city abruptly surprised some of them with discharge papers, and they were sent to a massive open-floor complex on Randall’s Island. The others could be sent away at a moment’s notice.

Tens of thousands of other refugees in New York City find themselves ensnared in a carceral immigration system that fails to provide them with adequate shelter or resources for survival. In September, Mayor Eric Adams said the cost of immigration will “destroy New York City.” Yet the scarcity is artificial: approximately 40,000 rent stabilized homes sit empty in New York City, universities with multibillion-dollar endowments like Columbia and NYU don’t pay property taxes and New York City is home to the most millionaires in the world.

Building Community Through Soccer

While the Biden administration builds Trump’s border wall and U.S. politicians use refugees as political pawns, some volunteers and community members are warmly welcoming them into the country. The asylum seekers at the Stockton site have found relief at Bushwick City Farm, a vibrant mutual aid hub and community lot across the street that has opened its doors for them to cook, eat and hang out. Woodbine Soccer connected with Farook, Nico and the others after friends at Bushwick City Farm told us they’d been looking for soccer matches.

Soccer lends itself to community building because it’s so accessible — all you need is a ball.

“It’s such a universal thing. It’s one of the only things that Britain gave to the world that they liked and wanted,” said Ryan Harvey, a musician, organizer and soccer player who started organizing weekly soccer matches in Baltimore eight years ago. “Because it is so universal, by simply having a game that is welcoming you are going to build a community around it.”

How to welcome the influx of refugees is a question locals will increasingly need to consider as people continue fleeing countries ravaged by U.S. imperialism and capitalist-induced climate change. “Part of welcoming people to the community is about building organized support networks to help with things like navigating the bus system or with paperwork,” Harvey offered. “But also, we can make space for people to plug into things they enjoy in life. Then also we get enriched by it because we learn about these other people’s lives and their cultures and you just cross pollinate.”

Harvey’s soccer matches were inspired by football culture he saw while touring Europe and the Middle East. He saw football hooligans playing a role in political uprisings like the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, and on a much smaller level, how community soccer games were an important part of the social fabric in other countries. In the Netherlands, friends of his played with people from refugee camps and in the U.K., he joined a weekly pick-up game followed by drinks at the pub. When he came home, he knew he wanted to do something similar.

At first, he joined a few pick-up games around the city, but some were hostile toward less-skilled players. He started having conversations with local artists, union organizers and friends to organize scrimmages that were fun and welcome for all.

“There was an organic and natural evolution from what was initially really an informal pick-up game into a larger operation where some days before COVID we’d have 80 people and 3 games going at once,” Harvey said. “We didn’t expand on purpose. What we have is a very self-organized little sports match thing. Not that big of a deal, no declaration, no plan. Because it’s soccer and because it’s a free space for people and because it’s welcoming, it’s just organically grown over the years.”

Refugee youth from Senegal, Kenya, Nepal, Eritrea and other countries joined the Sunday games by word-of-mouth or by stumbling upon them. Before long they all started playing in annual benefit tournaments together, some in support of Palestine and others to raise funds for refugee youth.

Woodbine Soccer similarly expanded without much effort. We fielded our first team in fall of 2021 by meeting people on the pitch and through social media accounts run by Woodbine, an experimental space in Ridgewood, Queens that we are affiliated with. Two years later we have about 120 people in our soccer group chat and, in addition to playing together, we’ve raised relief funds for the earthquake in Turkey and Syria and for the Stop Cop City movement. We’ve also run a cleat drive for our Mauritanian friends, some of whom were playing barefoot.

Yet, politics aide, simply making space for people to be in community together has been worthwhile for us, and for Harvey, who considers soccer the people’s therapy. “You don’t go there and get into a fight with some dude and then come home pissed off. You go there, and you have a good time, and you come home and you’re generally happier for the rest of the day,” he said. “And if that’s the only thing we’re doing, it’s totally worth it. It’s a self-organized space to play as adults and kids together, and just exist together and have fun, and it’s not scripted, there’s no money, there’s no regulations involved. It’s simple, it’s kind of the simplest thing in the world.”

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