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Immigrant Stories: Sierra Leone

Mahmoud Conteh, Sierra Leonean Refugee

Mahmoud Conteh came to St. Louis, MO in 2004. A member of the Mandingo tribe, Mahmoud was born in Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa. Fleeing the civil war that ravaged the nation for nearly 15 years, Mahmoud arrived as a refugee in Ghana before coming to the United States. In the camp, there was not enough food to go around, so Mahmoud went to the seaside to trade handmade dyed cloth for money or fish to supplement the camp’s allotment of food. The inhabitants around the camp weren’t welcoming towards the refugees. They often told Mahmoud to go back to his country. If a refugee was caught searching for firewood in the forest they were sent to jail. Inside the camp, however, many refugees were kind to each other, sharing what little they had. After seven years in the camp, Mahmoud was able to come to the United States, leaving behind his four brothers and three children. A caseworker was waiting for him upon his arrival at Lambert Airport with coupons for food and an apartment ready.

Mahmoud still does fabric designing, dyeing cloth and sometimes selling it at festivals. Mahmoud is working to bring his children to the United States to live with him. Back in Sierra Leone, things are still bad, but about his life in the US, Mahmoud says, “so far so good.”

Facts about Sierra Leone

The British set up a trading post near present-day Freetown in the 17th century. Originally the trade involved timber and ivory, but later it expanded into slaves. Following the American Revolution, a colony was established in 1787 and Sierra Leone became a destination for resettling black loyalists who had originally been resettled in Nova Scotia. After the abolition of the slave trade in 1807, British crews delivered thousands of Africans liberated from illegal slave ships to Sierra Leone, particularly Freetown. The colony gradually expanded inland during the course of the 19th century; independence was attained in 1961. Democracy is slowly being reestablished after the civil war (1991-2002) that resulted in tens of thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than 2 million people (about one third of the population). The military, which took over full responsibility for security following the departure of UN peacekeepers at the end of 2005, has developed as a guarantor of the country’s stability; the armed forces remained on the sideline during the 2007 and 2012 national elections. In March 2014, the closure of the UN Integrated Peacebuilding Office in Sierra Leone marked the end of more than 15 years of peacekeeping and political operations in Sierra Leone. The government’s stated priorities include furthering development – including recovering from the Ebola epidemic – creating jobs, and stamping out endemic corruption.

Population: 6,312,212 (July 2018 est.)

Location: Western Africa, bordering the North Atlantic Ocean, between Guinea and Liberia

Languages: English (official, regular use limited to literate minority), Mende (principal vernacular in the south), Temne (principal vernacular in the north), Krio (English-based Creole, spoken by the descendants of freed Jamaican slaves who were settled in the Freetown area, a lingua franca and a first language for 10% of the population but understood by 95%)

Religions: Muslim 78.6%, Christian 20.8%, other 0.3%, unspecified 0.2% (2013 est.)

Ethnic Groups:Temne 35.5%, Mende 33.2%, Limba 6.4%, Kono 4.4%, Fullah 3.4%, Loko 2.9%, Koranko 2.8%, Sherbro 2.6%, Mandingo 2.4%, Creole 1.2% (descendants of freed Jamaican slaves who were settled in the Freetown area in the late-18th century; also known as Krio), other Sierra Leone 4.7%, other foreign 0.3% (includes refugees from Liberia’s recent civil war, and small numbers of Europeans, Lebanese, Pakistanis, and Indians), unspecified 0.2% (2013 est.)

Information from the CIA World Factbook

The International Institute has resettled more than 50 refugees from Sierra Leone.