Anguished and afraid, West Africans in U.S. stay clear of new arrivals

Tonieh Ross of Charlotte is, with friends, sending money, food and supplies to some 20 people desperate for help in their native Liberia, mostly children. Here she holds flowers, a gift to the children of Liberia to show them that there is hope.
Tonieh Ross of Charlotte is, with friends, sending money, food and supplies to some 20 people desperate for help in their native Liberia, mostly children. Here she holds flowers, a gift to the children of Liberia to show them that there is hope. Charlotte Observer

Charlotte, N.C., merchant Tonieh Ross says her heart cries for the orphaned children back home in Liberia who aren’t getting the hugs they so need, for fear of the deadly Ebola virus.

Ross, the owner of the Virtuous D Boutique, also frets about her younger sister in Monrovia, Eugenia, whose paycheck disappeared when her employer shuttered his business and left the disease-ravaged country. Now Eugenia is among some 20 desperate Liberians, mostly children, phoning Ross “over and over and over until something happens” – that is, until she or her friends send money or food, she said.

“I have given everything just to be available and help my country,” Ross said.

While Ross and other West Africans living in cities across America are traumatized by images of suddenly orphaned kids or children lying ill in the streets in their native lands, they also live in fear themselves.

They know they may be among U.S. residents facing the greatest risk of exposure to the deadly disease. Visitors and immigrants from Ebola-stricken Liberia, Sierra Leone or Guinea are likely to first visit or live among their friends and relatives, just as Thomas Eric Duncan planned to do when he flew to Dallas before taking ill with Ebola, infecting two nurses. He died Oct 8.

It’s still possible to pass through airport screening while incubating the deadly virus.

“Naturally, you’ll be coming to your family member,” Ross said. “That will be of great concern.”

West African immigrants in a number of U.S. cities began weeks ago to take precautions similar to those that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention prescribed last week, staying clear of newly arriving visitors from the Ebola zone for the full 21-day incubation period.

Usually openhearted Liberians in Charlotte have said, “I don’t even want someone that has just traveled to come directly from Liberia to my house. I prefer them to be quarantined,” said Meatta Street, the president of the city's Liberian Community Association.

Precise breakdowns of ethnic populations in metropolitan areas aren’t available, but the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2013 American Community Survey presents conservative data about residents’ birthplaces.

According to those figures, which don’t include children born in America, Philadelphia has the most native Liberians, with 13,146, followed by Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., with 11,200, New York with 5,206, Washington with 4,870 and Providence, R.I., with 4,412. Local Liberian leaders in Philadelphia and Minneapolis each say their numbers actually exceed 30,000.

The nation’s capital is home to the most people born in Sierra Leone, with 10,282, followed by New York, with 6,433, according to the census data.

Surveyers found some 500 to 3,100 Liberians and Sierra Leoneans living in each of more than a dozen other cities.

Figures on migration from Guinea weren’t broken out separately.

In Sacramento, Calif., where about 450 Liberians live, the county’s public health officer said last week that her office was monitoring two patients who had a “very low risk” of carrying the virus.

“They did visit those (West African) countries,” Dr. Olivia Kasirye said, “but were not in contact with any Ebola patients.”

As per the CDC’s latest guidelines, those patients have been directed to take their temperatures twice daily and phone in the results to the public health office, but they aren’t being asked to stay out of public places unless symptoms of the disease appear.

Fear and anguish are in abundance.

Sierra Leone native Donald Taylor, an interim assistant vice president at Sacramento State University, said a friend came from Freetown three months ago for her father’s funeral. When she showed up at a community gathering, Taylor said, “Everybody said, ‘Don’t shake my hand, because you might have Ebola.’ ”

“I have parents and a brother there,” he said. “I told them I would spend Christmas with them. I hadn’t seen them for 10 years. I had a fervent promise to them that I would be there.

“There’s no way. I will not go to Freetown until we see the Ebola numbers beginning to recede. Even if I’m careful, upon return you have to be quarantined for 21 days. That’s quite a lot of time to be away from people, from work.”

In the Philadelphia suburb of East Lansdowne, the Rev. Moses Suah Dennis of Faith Immanuel Lutheran Church said the crisis had been “emotionally draining. . . . It’s like a heavy load that we are all carrying.”

He said new arrivals from Liberia “created some kind of fear” in the congregation.

“We’ve been telling them to stay at home for 21 days,” including the Liberian mother of a congregant who flew to safety in the United States in mid-October, said Dennis, while working to organize a weekend “Crush Ebola” walk.

One of Dennis’ congregants, Sadia Sherman, yearns for her husband of three years to leave Monrovia and join her in Philadelphia, but the U.S. embassy in Monrovia won’t issue him a residency visa because he hasn’t passed a medical exam.

The problem is there’s no one available to perform medical exams these days.

Sherman said she’d phoned the embassy “I don’t know how many times, just asking them what are the benefits of being an American citizen and having your husband over there where Ebola is.”

In Charlotte, Ross said the cries for help had created financial strains.

“It’s hard, because after a while you can’t keep asking other people to help,” she said.

Charlotte’s Liberian Community Association sent money to a nonprofit group to buy rice and water for people suffering in their homeland and a truckload of medical supplies – including hand sanitizers, virus-killing bleach and gloves – to the Liberian embassy in Washington, Street said.

Ross said she wept for the children “that have lost their parents and seemingly need a secure place to live . . . and feel unloved. You can’t touch them.”

“My passion is the children,” she said. “I want to go there so badly, but I know I have to use wisdom.”

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