In Texas, Liberian Americans weary of Ebola stigma

When Otto Williams opened his mouth last week to say that he’d be happy to work a new job installing home heating and air conditioning units, the contractor listened to Williams’s accent and asked where he was he from.

"Liberia," said Williams, 42, an HVAC technician. Knowing the concerns some people have about the Ebola virus, he made sure to smile.

But soon, the contractor mentioned he was in a hurry, excused himself and promised to call Williams back. He didn’t.

"It’s gotten to the point where you don’t want to mention you’re Liberian," Williams said.

The Ebola crisis that has ravished almost 4,500 people across Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea has hit close to home for many West African immigrants living in communities from Minnesota to Rhode Island. But probably none has been hit more than here in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. The community of 10,000 Liberians heeded the call to help family and friends when the epidemic took hold overseas. But now they’re immersed in their own battle against a national hysteria after a local Liberian man, Thomas Eric Duncan, 42, became the first U.S. patient to die from the disease.

The Dallas-Fort Worth area is ground zero for the Ebola crisis in the United States. Liberian Americans here, some of whom haven’t been back to their homeland in years or decades, report losing jobs, getting suspicious looks and facing probing questions from coworkers that they never received before.

Local pastors preach that the community shouldn’t be ostracized by the public, but even members themselves are wrestling with their own fears and uncertainties.

"You have to worry about family back home and being stigmatized over here," said Ulla Adighibe, 52, who has several friends who have died of the disease in Liberia.

Kids can be especially mean. A classmate of her daughter, Tiana, at her Fort Worth middle school started a rumor that Ebola was being spread during a recent pep rally. Another student wore a medical mask to class. Only a few kids know Tiana, 14, who was born in the United States, is Liberian. She worries what they may say if more find out.

"If they did know, I think they’d shun me," she said.

Adighibe worries about her daughter and the irrational fears being spread. But she understands where they’re coming from. She hears similar sentiments within the Liberian community. Several people raised concerns recently when a church member attended a service in medical scrubs.

"They didn’t know where she was coming from," Adighibe said.

At Adighibe’s church, tucked inside a strip mall between Dallas and Fort Worth, members have suspended handshakes and hugging when welcoming new arrivals from their homeland. Leaders of the House of Prayer Tabernacle say it’s more of a precaution, but there is a still a level of uncertainty even within the Liberian community about who may or may not have the virus.

"We have to be very mindful," said Albert McGill, 49, chairman of the church’s board of trustees.

Church leaders also worry that the stigma around Ebola will hurt patients; some might not want to admit they feel sick until it’s too late.

Many residents here prefer to spend time these days within the Liberian community, where there is lesser chance of people overreacting because of their ethnicity.

Otto Williams said he’s tired of walking into a room and wondering how people are going to react. Are they going to ask where he’s from? Is he going to lose more work? He thinks about trying to hide his accent and avoiding saying he’s from Liberia.

"I could say ‘I’m from the islands,’ " he said. "But I don’t want to lie."