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United in soccer

Kicking it at practice one September evening. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

Kicking it at practice one September evening. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

On a snowy Saturday in mid-February 2009, Andrew So and 25 kids from the South Bronx gathered on a soggy, slick baseball diamond to play soccer. It was the scene of a humble tryout for a brand-new league, but at the time So, a teacher at a nearby high school, was simply testing the interest of soccer in the community.

He knew the South Bronx was composed of almost 36 percent immigrants, 85 percent of whom are from either Latin America or Africa, two regions where soccer reigns. He also knew organized youth soccer was an unfilled niche that has had success in other areas of New York City, like Harlem and Brooklyn.

So still laughs when he thinks back on that inaugural afternoon of the South Bronx United, which in 19 months has ballooned into a five-team organization plus a recreational league composed of more than 300 players between the ages of four and 19. It is a rapidly growing enterprise, with sponsorships from companies like Adidas and JP Morgan Chase, an ambitious education initiative, and a coaching staff of nearly 50 volunteers.

Its uniqueness, however, can be found simply by examining the last names on many of the rosters. The teams are peppered by players from all corners of the globe — an astounding mix of diversity that serves as a microcosm for the assortment of nationalities living in the Bronx.

“South Bronx ‘United’ actually means something,” So said one night before practice with his U-13 team.

Fifty-nine of the 94 players currently spread amongst the league’s five travel teams are foreign-born, with representation from 23 countries, five continents and birthplaces ranging from the Ivory Coast to Yemen to Burkina Faso. With such a litany of ethnicities several of the coaches have begun describing their teams a different way.

“It’s like we’re a United Nations team,” said George Nantwi, head coach of the U-17 team. ”With just one ball, you can have 14 kids from all different backgrounds. There’s nothing like it.”

This vision first came from So, 27, who sought to use soccer as a vehicle for social and educational change in the heart of one of the poorest areas in the Bronx. A month ago, the fall season started and So, a slim and athletic-looking California
native, began preparing the alternate phase of the South Bronx United’s program, one aimed at education. He recently secured afterschool tutoring space at the nearby Urban Assembly School for Careers in Sports where league participants can receive homework help and test prep five days a week. Already he’s facilitated standardized test training and college application assistance for the league’s older members.

“Coaching these kids isn’t the same as a suburban team or a Manhattan team, you’re also needed as an education coordinator,” So said.

So came to New York from Stanford University, where he majored in computer science and played club soccer when he wasn’t studying. In 2005, he started work as a special education teacher at New Day Academy in the Bronx and soon initiated an after school soccer program for students. He began noticing its popularity rise.

“I saw some very talented kids, from various soccer backgrounds,” So said. “I saw they were very skillful and I thought I could help them go farther. And I also saw kids that didn’t have the skill and I thought they just really wanted to play.”

From his initial tryout, he molded an inaugural 15-and-under team that played other teams from across the city. His club went 1-8-1 that season.

But interest grew, and by June tryouts for the fall league featured 40 kids — enough to support three teams and give So the urge to push forward with the organization. The following spring, more than 250 newcomers were there to join.

Most of the teams practice at Macombs Dam Park, the elevated turf space built on a parking garage in the deep shadow of Yankee Stadium, and on a clear Thursday evening the field was clogged with kids trying to butt in on So’s permitted practice time. Half the field was occupied by a youth football team.

The United’s home games are played at Randall’s Island, an unfortunate but necessary geographic inconvenience for a league still in its infancy. They have no organizational transportation so teams usually travel there together on the subway. A coach usually brings an armful of bottled water if they don’t have a water jug, and players stand on the sidelines without benches to sit. The kids sometimes share cleats.

For the most part, though, they are eager to learn and happier to play. Before the league was founded, soccer in the Bronx offered little structure until the high school level. But the Bronx’s diversity lends naturally to the startup of a soccer league.
Highbridge, which is home to Yankee Stadium and many of the kids in the United league, has nearly 50,000 foreign-born residents, more than half of them from Latin American countries.

The Spanish children only make up a percentage of the blend of cultures thrust together on these soccer rosters, though. On the U-19 team alone, 10 different nationalities are represented, and 16 of the team’s 20 players are foreign born.

“Whenever you’re trying to achieve something in a specific domain, you will invariably have to work with people from different backgrounds,” said Allan Lazarovici, the head coach of the U-11 team. “It’s a basic part of life and soccer’s no exception. I think it’s a wonderful thing to see.”

Nantwi, a Ghana native who grew up in the Bronx, always believed the area was in need of an outlet for its raw soccer talent. And in this league, the co-mingling of cultures on a given roster provides an indication of just how deep the talent pool runs.

“Soccer’s unlike any other sport in that everyone plays, it’s able to bring everyone together,” Nantwi said. “We’re bringing people together from all over the world, right here in the Bronx.”

Posted in Education, Southern Bronx, Sports0 Comments

An African voice rises out of the fire

Niambele at work in Highbridge. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

Niambele at work in Highbridge. Photo: Zach Schonbrun

Bourema Niambele still speaks in hushed tones about the fire that tore through the lower levels of a duplex house on Woodycrest Avenue in 2007, killing nine people from two close-knit families of West African immigrants. The inferno was one of New York City’s deadliest, raging for two hours and requiring more than 150 fire fighters to subdue.

Nearly three years later, however, Niambele’s deep voice grows far more forceful as he explains the incident’s indelible impression on him.

“When I saw that fire,” the 38-year-old Mali immigrant said, “I said to myself, ‘Everything’s going to change.’”

A new picture of the South Bronx’s immigrant community emerged in the fire’s aftermath: a West African population, largely ignored and underestimated, had been growing along its western and northern rim for decades. They were disjointed and most clung fiercely to their cultural roots. Now they were shaken.

So, too, was Niambele, an immigrant who had arrived in the United States in 1998 and ran his own car service in the Bronx. The incident didn’t affect him physically, but it served to resurrect Niambele’s activist past, which had begun as a youth protester and then a clandestine revolutionary in Africa decades earlier.

After the fire, Niambele — known as “Nabi” — quit his business, the main lifeline of monetary support for his wife and four children in Mali. He decided to rely on his savings and to rededicate his life to public service, this time to a faction of people living in the complex cultural stew of the South Bronx.

“That fire has changed my life, to become more involved in Highbridge and more involved with the African community,” Niambele said. “Not everything is about yourself. The best way to be good to yourself is to do good for other people.”

In January, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. initiated the African Advisory Council to help address issues such as crime, education and assimilation difficulties facing African immigrants in their communities. He named Niambele as its inaugural coordinator.

It was a humbling appointment for Niambele, whose baggy eyes hint at the tireless approach he has taken toward his volunteer community efforts. His office — the one he shares, a few days a week, at the Highbridge Family Services Center on Nelson Avenue — is nondescript, cluttered with papers and tucked in a corner behind a waiting room. But the Blackberry at his hip vibrates incessantly — another appointment to make, another board meeting to attend, another fundraiser to organize for the growing number of African people he serves.

Niambele’s Advisory Council was established in part as an acknowledgment of the boom of African immigrants coming to the South Bronx from places like Ghana, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast in large numbers. Estimates are expected to show over 60,000 Africans living in the Bronx when the new census data comes out, double the number from just a decade ago. Such swift proliferation of people has diversified neighborhoods that were predominantly Latin American, spread the influence of Islamic culture, and also tested the tolerance of locals in an area where African hate crimes have a had history.

A year ago, a brutal assault of a Gambia immigrant stirred the Bronx African community, and in July the murder of an 18-year-old immigrant from Sierra Leone capped 12 months of attacks on mosques and African storeowners that have pushed Niambele and other local imams and community leaders to the brink of frustration over what he deems to be blatant hate crimes.

Niambele met personally with the new Bronx police commander Carlos Gomez in May and, along with several imams and community leaders, has pleaded with police to keep a closer eye on some of the areas where assaults have been more prevalent.

A police spokesperson said it’s not the first time such an effort has been made, but Niambele has been a difficult campaigner to ignore. Indeed, he is a forceful persona despite an unassuming stature: unblinking eyes that dig deeply in conversation, a booming voice, and a trademark piece of attire — the omnipresent leather cowboy hat he totes around the neighborhood, like a sheriff.

“If you’re not constantly in someone’s face, the causes you’re working for are never going to get addressed,” said Jose Rodriguez, the district manager of Community Board 4. “He’s representing his constituency well.”

Niambele has used his ties to the Highbridge Community Life Center, a local nonprofit aimed at addressing community needs, to draft a proposal to begin a city school program designed to inform kids about the cultural distinctions of African and Muslim communities — like women covering their faces, bigamous marriage practices and untraditional educational beliefs — as well as help immigrant parents ease their children into American society.

The proposal is expected to be considered by the Highbridge School Coalition, a gathering of half a dozen public and charter schools, at the end of the month. Chauncy Young, the Coalition’s organizer, thinks it could be implemented.

“I think it could work,” Young said. “If it’s organized well.”
So Niambele will organize it — much like the other neighborhood affairs to clog his digital calendar. Community work has choked away most of his free time, so much that he missed his son’s graduation from high school in Bamako, Mali, this June; he flew out to celebrate two days later.

It was the first time in several months he’d seen his family, and Niambele, who immigrated to the United States in 1998, has grown accustomed to a long-distance relationship based on phone calls and long flights. It is, he says, better than the alternative.

“Sometimes it’s not easy for me to stay there,” Niambele said, referring to his homeland, a country with which his relationship is complex.

As an adolescent, Niambele’s family moved from Mali to Cote D’Ivoire, which had fallen into severe economic decline and social unrest. As a 15-year-old, he organized student opposition to the government led by Felix Houphouët-Boigny, which he believed to be unjust and totalitarian.

“You just say to yourself, something has to be changed here,” Niambele said.

By the time he was 22, Niambele had been imprisoned twice for his political activism, threatening his ability to study law at the National University. He eventually quit school and for seven years worked discreetly for the Front Populaire Ivorien, an organization devoted to founding a new government system. He slipped back and forth between the Cote D’Ivoire and Mali, keeping a clandestine profile as a political activist working toward bringing democracy to the state.

When the danger of imprisonment grew too great, he eventually settled back in Mali, raised a family, and began a new life. He stayed away from the Cote D’Ivoire for 15 years, but the scars from his fight for a fairer government remain sore.

“Sometimes, even with Ivory Coast politics here, I take myself out of it,” Niambele said, his voice rising. “I don’t want to be part of it, I don’t want to hear anything.”

Niambele moved to the United States in 1998 but left his family behind for financial reasons, and he soon founded the New York Council of Malians, along with his small car service. After the fire, he joined AmeriCorps, a national community service organization, which placed him at the Highbridge Community Life Center. In January, the Advisory Council was founded and Niambele was put in charge of 18 other members, from various districts of the Bronx.

“I think Nabi really sees himself as a leader and an activist for the community,” Young said. “He has his own goals and perspective that go beyond any single community organization.”

In November, Niambele is planning on organizing an African celebration complete with food stands and musical entertainment. He smiles as he imagines the thought: a crowded community fair of immigrants, comingling in harmony, finally recognized as a piece in the Bronx’s diverse puzzle, three years after the fire that tore through its heart.

“This is like the easy part for me,” Niambele said. “People who are born here don’t know how good this country is. Those who come, who have been part of different systems, we appreciate and enjoyed it more. It becomes a blessing to be able to work.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Southern Bronx0 Comments

Roaring blaze empties Sheridan Avenue apartment building

By Stephanie Apstein and Zach Schonbrun

Highbridge apartment goes up in flames on a hot Friday afternoon

Highbridge apartment goes up in flames on a hot Friday afternoon

HIGHBRIDGE — A three-alarm fire tore through the top three floors of a six-story apartment building in the southeast Bronx on Friday afternoon. Four firefighters and two bystanders sustained minor injuries, but all the tenants were safely evacuated.

The fire quickly escalated from a two to three-alarm blaze due to the 90-degree heat and need for relief.

“It was hot,” said one firefighter who was in the building and declined to be named. “By the time we got here, it was roaring.”

Deputy Chief James J. Nichols said the cause of the fire is officially under investigation. “We think it’s accidental,” he said. “We think it’s electrical.”

The fire began on the fifth floor at approximately 3:30 p.m. at 1504 Sheridan Ave., a large grey-brick residential complex across the street from William Taft High School. FDNY Ladder Company 44 was the first to respond, followed by Ladder Company 49.

Because the building is large and the main entrance was far from the site of the fire, firefighters had to thread their hoses both through the lower levels of three adjacent buildings and also across the roof. The flames were extinguished in about 45 minutes.

Jason Monegro, 20, was the first to call 911 after he saw flames leaping from an electrical outlet near the television in his aunt’s fifth-floor apartment. He was doing laundry in the kitchen when his Yorkshire terrier, Bam-Bam, began barking and running back and forth.

“I saw smoke coming out of my cousin’s bedroom,” Monegro said. “And then I saw the crib catch on fire.”

Monegro said he poured a bucket of water on the fire, but when that had no effect he called 911.

“Everybody got out, thank god,” Monegro said.

The manager of Juhysa Beauty Salon on the building’s ground floor also called 911 when he noticed flames coming out of the windows on the fifth floor.

“I ran along the street and yelled up to the windows, ‘Fire! Fire!’” said Areliz Rodriguez.

Outside, throngs of bystanders crowded around the building, even as pieces of charred debris fell onto the street. Monegro, who was shirtless and barefoot, fielded questions from police, reporters and then dumbfounded family members as they slowly arrived on the scene. Monegro said glumly that his family had lived in the building for over 50 years.

“I don’t know,” Monegro said, when asked what he plans to do now. “I guess we’ll stay with relatives and see what the damage is.”

The building’s new superintendent, Juan Rosa, said he was working on the fourth floor when he heard the smoke alarms and saw the whole fifth floor filled with smoke.

“I was knocking and banging on the doors trying to get everyone out,” Rosa said when reached by telephone. “Now we’re picking up the mess.”

The entire length of the first floor was soaked with water from the firefighters’ hoses. From the ground, onlookers could see blue sky through the windows of some burnt-out sixth-floor apartments — an indication that the roof had collapsed.

Pamela Wright, a resident on the third floor, was not in her apartment at the time of the fire but arrived shortly thereafter. She was relieved to find out her apartment was not damaged.

“My granddaughter came and told me about it,” Wright said. “I was worried about my cat and my other stuff. It hasn’t really set in yet.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Southern Bronx3 Comments

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