Amid Ebola fear, West Africans in U.S. try to help

Jennifer McDermott
Associated Press

Providence, R.I. — When a friend called Togar Johnson from a bus stop last month to ask for a lift, Johnson made what he considered a difficult but prudent decision: He said no.

The friend had recently returned to the United States from Ebola-ravaged Liberia, and Johnson believed contact with him was just too risky. Even if it had been Johnson’s own flesh and blood, the most he would have offered was cash — enough to stay at a hotel for 21 days, the incubation period of the deadly virus.

“I would not accept them,” Johnson said when asked what he would do if his daughter or grandchild had placed the same call. “They have to be isolated.”

As West Africans who have made their home in the United States watch the infection kill thousands half a world away, they are struggling to help far-off family and friends. In cities such as Minneapolis, Philadelphia, New York, Providence and Long Beach, California, they are praying, collecting donations and buying medical supplies for their countrymen.

At the same time, many West Africans in this country are afraid of what those same loved ones could bring to their doorsteps. They are trying to strike a balance between their longstanding tradition of hospitality — opening their arms to new arrivals — and their fear of infection.

Those fears intensified after the first person diagnosed with Ebola in the U.S., Thomas Eric Duncan, died last week in Dallas. Over the weekend, authorities disclosed that a Dallas nurse who treated the Liberia man had contracted Ebola, too, in the first known case of the virus being transmitted in the U.S.

In Providence, where the Liberian community claims 15,000 members, the Liberian Community Association of Rhode Island is raising money to rent an apartment or a house for people arriving from Liberia whose relatives are too afraid to take them in.

One man who spoke at an association meeting last week said he would welcome someone who had been to Liberia into his home, but he would give the visitor separate dishes and silverware. Some said they would feel comfortable accepting guests. But Liberian community leader Daniel Gould said he just couldn’t do it.

“I’m a caring, loving person. All Liberians are,” he said. “But I can’t take that chance.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not recommended isolating travelers from West Africa who haven’t shown any Ebola-like symptoms. But Dr. Michael Fine, director of the Rhode Island Department of Health, said he can understand ordinary people’s fears.

“People are doing the best they can,” he said.

The virus is spread only through direct contact with bodily fluids such as saliva, semen, sweat, blood, vomit or feces. Health care workers treating the infected are especially at risk.

West African communities here say they want to protect not only themselves but their adopted homeland. In Minnesota, a task force formed to answer questions and combat misconceptions about the disease wants local Liberians to let the group know of anyone who arrives from that region.

“An Ebola crisis here would be the worst thing we would want to see,” said Abdullah Kiatamba, chairman of the Minnesota African Task Force Against Ebola.

Some West Africans in the U.S. are also trying to assuage the fears of American neighbors who now look askance at them.

In Minnesota, home of the largest Liberian population in the United States, estimated by community leaders at 30,000 to 35,000 people, members of the Ebola task force went to speak with local school districts because some parents didn’t want their kids playing with children from West Africa.

To help those already afflicted by the outbreak, the Liberian-American Community Association of Southern California joined with a Liberian-born trauma surgeon to donate supplies ranging from bleach to a pair of electrocardiogram machines.

And in the Little Liberia section of New York’s Staten Island, Day Keay said she has been praying for her homeland almost night and day. Keay, who has been in the U.S. for 14 years, said her foster daughter has lost 15 members of her family.

“We are all afraid,” she said. “It’s like we live in the church, asking for God’s mercy for our people back there.”

Kormasa Amos, a community leader in Rhode Island, said West Africans must not lose their compassion for their countrymen.

“If we can’t take care of our own, how can we expect others to?” she said. “If we turn our people away, the world will say: If they can’t do it, why should we?”