Since May, the Johnstons said, they have been dismissed from jobs as nurse's aides and clinical helpers because of their change in status. Two members of the family found other work but fear those employers will fire them as well. All said they are afraid to drive to work, because of the prospect that a minor traffic violation could lead to deportation.
"It's very difficult," said Daphne Sawyerr-Dunn, a U.S. citizen who emigrated from Sierra Leone and is a member of Friends of Sierra Leone. "This is just one of thousands of families. You hear these stories all the time."
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Sierra Leoneans fear their lives would be threatened if they were to return to their country, which borders equally troubled Liberia, whose citizens still have temporary protected status. The average life expectancy is about 32 years for men and 35 years for women.
Anita Johnston came to the United States for a visit in 1989 and stayed illegally after her visa expired. Her daughter followed two years later. They applied for protected status six years after Sierra Leone's civil war started in 1991.
James Johnston stayed behind to continue working at the airport in the capital city of Freetown. But as war roiled around him, he said, he eventually felt "my life was at stake." Gunmen banged at the door of his house, which was made of drywall, while shouting threats.
"It was a trauma for most of us," he said. "One night they killed 100 people. Then they displayed the bodies out in the street. They burned people in their homes. That was common. They were vicious."
He said the family's home was burned shortly after he fled, in 1996. Rebels who killed and tortured civilians roam the city freely, Johnston said. Sierra Leonean parents of children who were born in the United States are agonizing over whether to take them to an impoverished nation with a strikingly high infant mortality rate or leave them behind, Sawyerr-Dunn said.
Sitting at a kitchen table in a friend's dining room, Alice Johnston spoke of a life in hiding. "I spend most of my day at home," she said. "I pray a lot. You hope the next day will be better than the day before." Her parents nodded in agreement.