Ebola’s Stigma Adds to Liberians’ Burden

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A stigma of being from West Africa has become a new burden for Liberians in the U.S., who also are mourning loved ones and sending money to relatives who can’t work because of the Ebola epidemic.

Community leaders in enclaves from New York to Minnesota said some children are taunted at school, and workers have been asked to go home after sneezing or coughing, even though they haven’t traveled recently to an Ebola-affected country.

“We have been trying to put together a united front against Ebola,” said Togba Croyee Porte, who lives in New York City’s “Little Liberia” on Staten Island. “But we’re fighting Ebola on two fronts: the disease in Africa and stigmatization as Africans here in America, even as we’re losing family members back at home.”

Of the three countries with widespread transmission, Liberia has the largest representation in the U.S., with 65,000 people of Liberian ancestry in the country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The death of Thomas Eric Duncan in Dallas, who had come to the U.S. from Liberia, also has put that nation at the center of Americans’ focus.

Oretha Bestman-Yates, president of the Staten Island Liberian Community Association, said that as fear of an outbreak worsened, her 6-year-old son was taunted at school.

“He would say, ‘Mommy, I don’t want to be Liberian anymore. I want to be American,’ ” said Ms. Bestman-Yates, a nurse’s assistant at a Staten Island hospital. “I asked him why and he said, ‘Because they’ve heard of Liberians and they all have Ebola.’ ”

“Instead of being seen as a person, you are seen as a carrier of a virus,” said Alexander Collins, executive director of the Liberian Ministers Association of Minnesota, whose network includes some 50 churches. He said several congregants—many of them health-care workers—have reported being asked to go home from work after sneezing or coughing.

The fear has extended beyond those from Liberia. Sara Berthe, who works in malaria prevention at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, said her 1-year-old son was kicked out of a day-care center early last week because she was planning a work-related trip to Senegal. That West African nation had a single case of Ebola, and the CDC on Friday declared that it is free of the disease.

“She was very sad and very regretful,” Ms. Berthe said of the day care operator, who didn’t respond to requests for comment. “She even admitted to me, ‘I don’t know if this is the right decision for me to make, but because of Ebola and not knowing everything about it, this is what I think I have to do now.’ ” Ms. Berthe is American; her husband is from Mali.

In Texas, a community college has defended its decision to reject applicants from Ebola-affected countries including Nigeria, which hasn’t seen a case of the disease for more than 21 days.

“We’re sorry that some disagree with our decision, but we believe that at this time, this is the right and responsible action to take for the safety of our students and community,” said Dewayne Gragg, vice president of access and accountability at Navarro College in Corsicana, south of Dallas.

Those with family members in Liberia say they now carry the responsibility of supporting them.

The Rev. Philip Saywrayne, pastor of the Christ Assembly Lutheran Church on Staten Island, has been sending money to relatives and friends via Western Union every day since the Ebola outbreak began this summer.

“It’s into the thousands. Many people have been told not to go to work, to stay home,” said Mr. Saywrayne, whose wife has lost 15 relatives to Ebola. “So they have no money and no food.”

Even so, after Mr. Duncan’s death, many Liberian families in the U.S. are nervous about housing relatives who arrive from Ebola-stricken areas, community leaders said.

In Minnesota, church leaders are raising money to rent a house where people arriving from Ebola-affected countries could stay for 21 days, the Ebola incubation period, before moving in with relatives, Mr. Collins said. The CDC doesn’t recommend quarantine in such cases, but Mr. Collins said it could allay fears among people both inside and outside Minnesota’s Liberian community.

In these communities, apprehension is mixed with grief.

“Imagine your mother, your father, your nieces, your nephews are dying, and you cannot give them a proper burial,” said Dahn Dennis, president of the Liberian Association of Pennsylvania. “There will be no grave to go back to see them.”

The Rev. Moses Dennis, who leads a Liberian ministers association in the Philadelphia region, said he can’t yet bring himself to hold a memorial service for those Liberians lost to Ebola.

Culled from MSN news: http://www.msn.com/en-us/news/us/ebolas-stigma-adds-to-liberians-burden/ar-BBag2ww

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