The crowds eating cassava leaves and gooey peanut butter soup are smaller these days at Sumah's restaurant in Northwest Washington. The volume on the bouncy Afro-Caribbean music inside the Sierra Leonean carryout has been turned down. It is a sober time.
A peace treaty has been signed in their country's eight-year civil war, but Sierra Leonean families here still receive terrified phone calls from relatives who have suffered the rebels' signature atrocity: hands, feet and other body parts sliced off by machete. When such calls come, celebrations are put off to a time until the images of infants losing their fingers and toes have at least begun to fade.
For most Americans, Sierra Leone's civil war has been a brief item in their newspaper, a 30-second spot on their cable news, another complicated skirmish in another faraway country. But to the estimated 10,000 Sierra Leoneans in the Washington region, the war is a daily part of their lives.
Americans have always sent aid to countries where they have distant relatives or even just a sentimental attachment to their roots. But for those who have immigrated recently, living here while wars or natural disasters torment their homeland can leave them overwhelmed by feelings of guilt and helplessness.
From October's Hurricane Mitch in Central America to last week's earthquake in Turkey, many Americans with lives here and families abroad find themselves huddling with friends and creating phone-in news hot lines, money drives and Internet chat groups.
"It's hard to party, hard to go through life here when your people are in pain," said Sumah Amara, the owner of tiny Sumah's, where photographs of his country's golden beaches are taped to the walls. "We have to help."
For Foday Conteh, a Washington taxi driver, the trouble back home means scrambling to work double shifts so he can wire money to his five children living in Sierra Leone. For Abu Bakarr Bangura, a 29-year-old computer science student, it means skipping studying so he can print fliers and knock on doors to raise money for medical supplies, computers, beds and cash to help those in Sierra Leone.
"Certainly people feel almost trapped. They don't know how to get in touch, and they are not sure what to do," said Arli Eicher, coordinator of the D.C. Immigrant Coalition, which represents more than 100 immigrant and religious groups. "People here also feel this tremendous sense of guilt for living what seems like an easier life here. They almost make it a goal to stay connected, but it can be hard."
With long work hours, hundreds of distractions in daily life and a larger culture that is more focused on Hollywood than international injustice, many immigrants can feel isolated.
The American culture can appear to shut out problems abroad, said Sara Lindstrom, assistant director of the Office of International Programs and Services at George Mason University, where about 1,500 foreign students from 119 countries attend classes. "It can be very stressful for [the immigrants], and, of course, it effects their ability to focus on their studies when they don't know if their family is okay," Lindstrom said.
Sarper Balic, 26, is from Turkey and is working with the Assembly of Turkish Students Associations to raise money for earthquake relief. "It's pretty bad when everything is happening back home and then you have to deal with all of the everyday pressures of school and work here," he said. "You just have to join together and help each other."
When chaos erupts abroad, many students form organizations and hold meetings and movie nights and dances to help students relieve their communal worries. GMU also works with students who need to postpone paying tuition or take incompletes in classes.
"We want them to feel like they can cope and still be here," Lindstrom said.
At Sumah's restaurant, Amara has set up a makeshift information board, where recent newspaper articles about Sierra Leone and notices of groups meeting in the D.C. area are posted. Amara hopes his shop will also help immigrants and their children remember their native country.
The restaurant has wooden tables with wobbly wooden chairs. Plants and coconuts are scattered like trophies around the room. Brown and red love beads hang in the back of the store. Maps of Africa line the walls. A poster commemorates the losses of the civil war: It shows a soldier with a gun standing amid dozens of skeletons.
Civil war began in Sierra Leone in 1990. An election was held in 1996, but soon after, the government was overthrown by mutinous soldiers and rural rebels. The elected government was later restored to power by loyal soldiers with the aide of West African intervention force, but the rebels launched a new offensive.
After years of warfare, African and Western governments brought Sierra Leone's current, elected leadership and the Revolutionary United Front rebels to peace talks. The foreign brokers, which included the United States, pressured the two sides to sign last month's accord.
Sierra Leoneans both there and in the United States have called the peace agreement a "bitter pill." The deal will give a role in government and an unconditional amnesty to rebels who, according to news reports, have burned homes and killed or mutilated thousands.
At the Sierra Leonean Embassy in Dupont Circle, Ambassador John Ernest Leigh keeps a package of photographs on his desk. The pictures are of people who have been mutilated during the Civil War.
He also keeps a folder with organizations that have started here to help Sierra Leone. "I'm proud that people are doing this," Leigh said. "It's important for them to remember."
Many at Sumah's agree, including those who may have taken different sides in the civil war.
"When all the telephones went out in Sierra Leone, we organized a toll-free line and got people around the world to help us get information to America," said Milton Pratt, who used to run a small newspaper for Africans in the District and now runs a driving school. "People here need to know what's happening, otherwise it's just too much pain."
According to some Sierra Leoneans, even when the news is horrible, it is better to maintain the ties with home.
CAPTION: "It's hard to go through life here when your people are in pain," says Sumah Amara, owner of Sumah's, a Sierra Leonean restaurant in D.C.
CAPTION: Ambassador John Ernest Leigh, of Sierra Leone, shows pictures of victims of rebel violence in his country. He said he is proud of Sierra Leoneans in the United States who are trying to get aid to their homeland: "It's important for them to remember."