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Researcher Studies How Dispersed Sierra Leoneans Maintain Sense of Community

When civil war broke out in the West African country of Sierra Leone in 1991, it sent thousands of Sierra Leoneans fleeing to peace and asylum abroad. Meanwhile, thousands more who had come to the United States in previous years found themselves unable to return to their families and culture in Sierra Leone.

A book by anthropologist JoAnn D’Alisera explores how the displaced people found their identity and a sense of community in the United States. “An Imagined Geography,” published in March by the University of Pennsylvania Press, challenges the long-held anthropological paradigm that communities are bound and defined by geography.

D’Alisera studied Sierra Leonean Muslims who had come to the United States in three separate waves of immigration.The first wave was after 1965, when immigration law changed. In the 1970s came economic refugees. The 1990s brought the civil war and a new wave of civil war refugees fleeing for their safety. As the civil war escalated, travel between Sierra Leoneand the United States became more difficult and was impossible at the height of the war in the mid-1990s. Many of the Sierra Leoneans who had entered the United States in the first two waves found themselves stuck there.

D’Alisera’s book shows how the immigrants maintained an intense sense of community through weddings, rituals and travel, even while they were spread throughout the United States and the world and could not return to their homeland.

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