Losing loved ones to Ebola, Africans in Grand Forks raise awareness, funds to help those back home
The Ebola outbreak in Liberia has hit home, quite literally, for Grand Forks’ Loseni Bility.
The 28-year-old, who moved to Grand Forks 10 years ago as part of a resettlement program, is one of approximately 200 Liberians in the area. He last visited his hometown of Barkedu, Liberia, in September 2013.
When he said his goodbyes and returned to the U.S., he didn’t think it would be the last time he would see 10 of his family members.
This July, Bility received a phone call from a relative and learned that the Ebola outbreak that began in March in neighboring Guinea had spread to Barkedu, and 20 people in Bility’s hometown quickly contracted it.
“Everybody was panicking in the town because of how everyone was dying,” he said.
Since that time, Bility said, he constantly fears that he will continue to hear more bad news.
But he and other Africans in Grand Forks are trying to help.
Members of the nonprofit United African Community they’re raising awareness of Ebola, and sending money and supplies home to help those fighting the epidemic.
Although the U.S. is not currently at risk of an Ebola outbreak, some Africans in Grand Forks still deal with the fear of what is happening back home.
Ebola is estimated to be fatal in more than 50 percent of all cases. Since the outbreak began in March, the disease is reported to have infected 2,615 and is suspected to have killed 1,425, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Liberia, where the disease is suspected of killing 624, is one of the hardest hit. Other hard hit countries include Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
“It’s so disruptive,” said Alexander Azenkeng, who is from Cameroon and the president of the United African Community. “Family members are so scared something is going to happen. Just that fear element is traumatizing, even if you are well.”
Gathered in the UAC office at South Washington Street and 24th Avenue South, former and past presidents of the organization talked about actions they are taking to combat the epidemic from approximately 7,000 miles away.
One of the group’s major priorities is helping to educate Africans back home about the nature of the disease.
George Massaquoi, who moved to Grand Forks from Liberia six years ago and is the president of the Grand Forks Liberian Community, said he tries to emphasize how Ebola is spread.
Ebola can only be contracted through contact with bodily fluids, which makes it easier to contain than an airborne virus.
Massaquoi said this is important knowledge because many African cultural practices, such as hand-washing the bodies of the dead and caring for one’s own sick, involve bodily contact and have perhaps exacerbated the spread of Ebola.
But the high level of contagiousness and deadliness of Ebola is not the only problem.
“Ebola is a very difficult disease to deal with,” said Reginald Tarr, former UAC president who moved to Grand Forks from Liberia 11 years ago.
Ebola is only contagious when an infected person has a fever, but it can take up to 21 days for a fever to develop. By that time, a person might not associate the fever with Ebola, and therefore might not limit contact with others.
The UAC is not the only group raising awareness. The state of North Dakota is telling those traveling to or from West Africa that they, too, are at risk.
“Here in North Dakota it starts with education — educating the general public, educating individuals and educating medical providers and then making sure they have everything they need to enact all the precautions,” said Kirby Kruger, the director of disease control with the state Department of Health.
To achieve this end, the department held a series of live video conferences for healthcare professionals, higher-education personnel, business leaders and the general public to educate them on the nature of Ebola.
Azenkeng, who works as a research scientist at UND’s Energy & Environmental Research Center, said the university has sent out emails spreading awareness of the disease in case students or faculty have travelled to West Africa recently or are planning on doing so.
“We can all talk all we want about Ebola, but what are we going to do about it?” Tarr asked. “We are all impacted every day.”
In addition to educating people on how to prevent the spread of Ebola, the UAC is also sending food, supplies and money back to Liberia.
When Massaquoi heard that his brother back home was sick, he sent extra money so he could go to the hospital. Luckily, he didn’t have Ebola and seems to have recovered.
The UAC also contacted the state of North Dakota, which allowed them to use a warehouse in Fargo to store donations.
Gabriel Merchant, who is also from Liberia and has two master’s degrees from UND, pulled out a handwritten list of things the UAC is trying to collect to send to Liberia: latex gloves, hand sanitizer, intravenous fluids, rehydration salts and other medical supplies that can help those caring for patients with Ebola.
Bility said they are also trying to collect food to send because the price of rice has doubled or tripled since the outbreak, especially since neighboring countries are limiting traffic into and out of Liberia to help contain the Ebola.
He said it’s hard not to feel bad when he compares his current situation with what is going on in his hometown. In a town as small as Barkedu, facilities for treating the sick are overwhelmed by the Ebola outbreak.
“I went there last year and took photos of the little clinic. It’s just the size of this room,” Bility said, spreading his arms to indicate the two-desk UAC office around him.
When Bility was in Barkedu, he drove a woman in his hometown to the hospital. The town didn’t have an ambulance at the time, but was finally able to purchase one after a five-year project.
Without a car or ambulance, people have had to resort to using homemade stretchers. Azenkeng said that sometimes in small villages in Cameroon, people would carry their sick as far as 10 or 15 miles on hammocks to get them to clinics or treatment centers.
The combination of scarce resources and the rampant Ebola epidemic has the UAC doing everything it can to send supplies to friends, family and fellow Liberians fighting the outbreak.
“Before the Ebola crisis, people lived on a dollar or less a day,” Massaquoi said. “The Ebola crisis has exacerbated the situation. It’s a terrible situation,” he said. “Every single piece of help is needed.”
On the Web: UAC is online at www.uac-gf.org.