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Visiting Staten Island's thriving immigrant communities

The borough’s immigrant population has shifted over the course of time

Staten Island may hold the title for the city’s second-largest borough in terms of land mass, but it’s historically lagged behind the other boroughs in terms of sheer number of residents—and diversity.

According to the most recent U.S. Census data, 62 percent of Staten Island residents identify as white, 18 percent as Hispanic or Latino, 12 percent as black, and 8 percent as Asian. But the data alone hardly tells the whole story.

As the borough’s population has grown over the past few decades, demographics have quietly shifted. Now, Staten Island is home to thriving immigrant communities with residents from Liberia, Mexico, and Sri Lanka. Many of these new residents have settled in neighborhoods along the borough’s North Shore, building bustling enclaves with restaurants, shops, cultural centers, and other businesses.

Below, meet some of these residents and find out how they’re putting their own stamp on Staten Island.

Sri Lankans in Tompkinsville

In Tompkinsville, one of the most prevalent immigrant groups is from the South Asian island of Sri Lanka. A small but significant cluster of restaurants and shops along Victory Boulevard make up what is known as Little Sri Lanka, serving as a hub for members of the community to connect with each other.

According to City Limits, an accountant named Leslie Gunaratne is believed to be the first Sri Lankan immigrant to settle on the island, back in 1967. The population grew rapidly in the 1980s as many people fled to escape the Sri Lankan Civil War. Earlier Sri Lankan immigrants took a liking to the borough for its affordability and small-town vibe, but it’s the sense of community that is attracting newcomers and convincing them to stay put.

Restaurant owner Lakruwana Wijesinghe is one of those who migrated to New York during the ’80s. “When my father first came here, he lived in Manhattan,” explains his 18-year-old daughter, Julia Wijesinghe. “But he had friends on Staten Island and eventually found that there was more opportunity for him here.”

Lakruwana Wijesinghe, owner of popular Sri lankan restaurant Lakruwana.

Lakruwana met his wife, Jayantha, on the Staten Island Ferry (awww). Over the years, they grew to love the borough, and have no plans of permanently returning to Sri Lanka. Some of their favorite activities to do around the neighborhood include visiting the Sri Lankan Buddhist Temple on Bay Street, shopping at the Staten Island Mall, and watching cricket matches in Clove Lakes Park.

Julia convinced her parents to let her create the first (albeit tiny) Sri Lankan Museum on the lower level of Lakruwana Restaurant, the critically acclaimed eatery they run on the corner of Bay and Broad streets. Now, the space is filled with treasures she collects on her annual trip back to Sri Lanka, along with items from her parents’ personal collection.

Mexicans in Port Richmond

Over the past decade or so, Port Richmond, a neighborhood historically populated by Jewish and Irish immigrants (and later on, black people), has seen an influx of Mexican immigrants, both documented and undocumented. While many of the small businesses along Port Richmond Avenue were forced to shutter due to competition from the Staten Island Mall, a string of Mexican-owned and -operated shops have replaced older businesses and are thriving.

In recent years, though, the community has faced a number of challenges. In 2010, racial tensions in the neighborhood escalated, resulting in a series of violent attacks on Mexican immigrants.

More recently, under the new presidential administration, a crackdown on undocumented immigrants has sparked federal immigration raids on Staten Island—and instilled fear among the Port Richmond community.

“Since the ICE raids started, businesses that depended on day laborers have been impacted,” explains a Port Richmond resident, who preferred to remain anonymous. In a New York Daily News piece from February, Reverend Edmund Whalen from the neighborhood’s St. Roch Catholic Church said, “There is a sense of uncertainty. [Residents] don't know what's coming next.”

Residents in the neighborhood rely on support from local organizations like Make the Road New York to aid and guide them through these critical times. From providing the community with test prep and applications for citizenship to educating them on their rights in the event of an encounter with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the organization is doing what it can to help out.

Many of the businesses along Port Richmond Avenue have shuttered.

Liberians in Park Hill/Clifton

With more than 8,000 Liberian immigrants residing in Staten Island’s Park Hill, Clifton, and Stapleton neighborhoods, the island is among the largest Liberian enclaves of any city outside of Africa. Fleeing from conflicts in West Africa during the 1980s and 1990s, Liberians chose Staten Island for its affordability.

“Many Liberians actually lived in Rhode Island first, but they spread to Newark and New York. When they got to Staten Island, they tried it and liked it,” says Deacon Telee Brown, a member of Staten Island’s Community Board 1. “It wasn’t as alarming as in the Bronx, Brooklyn, and other places.”

The Park Hill Apartments, a public housing complex for low-income-earning families, is home to a large concentration of Liberians, but there are also many middle-income families who own homes in the area.

Tappen Park in Stapleton, Staten Island, a community that many Liberian immigrants call home.

In 1984, residents established the Staten Island Liberian Community Association (SILCA) to provide direct services while working with local officials to engage and advance Liberian residents. According to Brown, who once served as president of SILCA, the group operates a free food pantry that welcomes Liberians and non-Liberians, a small marketplace in the Park Hill Apartments, and plans the annual Liberian Independence Day celebration, which takes place in the summer.

During the warmer months, many community members can be found in the area’s parks, with some playing soccer matches in Stapleton Playground. “Africans don’t like the cold, so you won’t catch us out a lot in the winter,” says Brown. When asked if he plans to move in the foreseeable future, the 17-year Staten Island resident says, “I’m vested. I’m not going anywhere.”

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