Members of the Washington, D.C. Sierra Leonean immigrant community attend the traditional naming ceremony for one-year old Aayan Sheku Mansaray, Jr. (not seen), held Saturday, April 6, 2013, at the Vansville Recreation Hall in Beltsville, Md. (American Observer/Pat Anastasi)
42-year old Aiah Fanday, of Upper Marlboro, Md., talks about being a Sierra Leonean immigrant in the Washington, D.C. area, his Sierra Leone community and his work as a leader among his fellow immigrants.
By Pat Anastasi
The roar coming from the Vansville Recreation Hall in Beltsville, Md. on a recent Saturday afternoon might easily be the start of a stereotypical, raucous teenage birthday party. Instead, a peek inside finds a mix of young and old, many dressed in traditional African garb, celebrating an Islamic naming ceremony for one-year-old Aayan Sheku Mansaray, Jr.
Welcome to the Sierra Leonean community of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area – one of the largest populations of this West African country’s immigrant communities in the United States, according the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2006-2010 American Community Survey.
The celebration has contemporary American touches: A disc jockey spinning the latest hits at an ear-splitting level, helium birthday balloons floating across the ceiling and a six-foot-long poster of the birthday boy on the wall above an enormous birthday cake thick with colorful icing. But without warning, the music and the noise from the crowd dies down within seconds as a pale green prayer rug is laid across the floor and soft, almost murmuring prayers call for blessings on the guest of honor.
The Mansaray event is one of many bits of Sierra Leonean heritage – including weddings, christenings, mosques and churches that are part of a native culture the group tries to maintain, says community leader Aiah Fanday. Fanday is vice president of the Friends of Sierra Leone, a nationwide group of former Peace Corps workers and expatriates dedicated to keeping Sierra Leone culture alive in their adopted country, the United States.
Sierra Leone is located between Guinea and Liberia on the African continent. (Courtesy/CIA World Factbook)
Fanday, 42, of Upper Marlboro, Md., came to the U.S. alone at the age of 18 seeking an education. Now, with a wife and three children ages 16 to 22, he works hard to keep Sierra Leone in their lives. “Even though many of us have been here several years – 20 years plus, 30 years – we always try to keep an eye on our country, Sierra Leone,” Fanday says.
But keeping Sierra Leonean beliefs and customs from being overrun by American culture is not an easy task.
Compared to the U.S., Sierra Leone itself is a relatively small nation on the coast of Africa, encompassing about 28,000 square miles. That’s half the size of the state of Illinois.
And with a population estimated at just over 5 million near the end of the country’s ten-year civil war, the nearly 5,000 Sierra Leoneans found living in the Washington, D.C. area represent a significant portion of their homeland’s population.
Plus, despite the end of that civil war in 2002, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service says thousands more Sierra Leoneans continue to come to the U.S. each year.
So, why, if the war is over, do immigrants continue to flow from Sierra Leone to the U.S.?
Amara Sumah, of Washington, D.C., sought opportunities he could not get in Sierra Leone when he came to the United States in 1978, at the age of 21. (Photo/Idit Knaan)
“Opportunity,” says 56-year old Washington, D.C., restaurateur Amara Sumah. “There are more opportunities here than anywhere in the world.”
Sumah came to D.C. in 1978 at age 21. He took small jobs in local stores, washed dishes and worked in a hotel before he and his wife, Isata, opened Sumah’s Restaurant 22 years ago, serving West African food.
“It’s a hard job,” Sumah says, “But I like it.”
Sumah and his wife say they also work hard to maintain their native culture in their three daughters, ages 14, 24 and 25. “They eat our food once a week,” Sumah says, “but they also eat American food.”
One other reason Sierra Leonean immigrants say they continued to flow from Sierra Leone to the U.S. is the search for education.
Darlington Brima, age 39, of Wheaton, Md., left the Kono district of Sierra Leone 21 years ago, in 1982, in search of an education in the United States. (Photo/Pat Anastasi)
Darlington Brima, 39, of Wheaton, Md., came to the area at the age of 18 courtesy of a program created by a friend in the Peace Corps. “The idea,” says Brima, “was to study and go back home.”
But war broke out in the middle of his studies and with his home district of Kono under siege, he extended his stay.
Now, with the war over and an education under his belt, Brima sees himself eventually returning to his homeland to help with rebuilding. “I have skills,” he says. “I might be an asset to my country.”
Marie Hinton, 41, of Gaithersburg, Md., came to the U.S. from Sierra Leone in 1994. Now a naturalized U.S. citizen, she’s used her American education to become a licensed practical nurse and regularly sends money back home to her mother and father.
However, Hinton says recent college and university development near Freetown, the capital city of Sierra Leone, may make her the last of a breed. “A lot of people are graduating from college back home,” she says, “So most people now tend to stay back home when they finish college.”
A Gallup survey taken of 501,366 adults in 154 countries between 2010 and 2012 and released in mid-March says nearly 30 percent of Sierra Leoneans, if they had the chance, would immigrate to the United States.
But Hinton’s feeling is supported by at least one U.S. State Department official who says over the last five years Sierra Leoneans have applied for only about 14 percent of the immigration slots the U.S. allows from their country.
As for Hinton herself she says, while the ways of Sierra Leone are strong in her, she doesn’t see herself permanently moving back anytime soon.
“I’m a U.S. citizen now,” Hinton says, “ I love my country. This is my country now. I love being here.”
Pat Anastasi is a 30-year Washington, D.C. news veteran with management, reportorial and editorial experience on the local and network level, on print, radio, TV and Internet platforms. His specialities include producing, reporting, managing and editing.