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St. Paul woman off to Africa after learning father has Ebola

ST. PAUL -- Mariama Kpaka-Sengita's father is ill, so she's planning to go home to try to help him. The problem is that "home" is the African country of Sierra Leone and her father's illness is Ebola. The 31-year-old St. Paul resident who works f...

Mariama Kpaka-Sengita, a St. Paul school district staff member, who is planning to go back to her homeland, Sierra Leone, to try to get medical care for her father, who has Ebola. She's also raising money to try to help provide education for children in the country. Oct. 17, 2014 photo taken in St. Paul. (Pioneer Press: Richard Chin)


ST. PAUL -- Mariama Kpaka-Sengita’s father is ill, so she’s planning to go home to try to help him.

The problem is that “home” is the African country of Sierra Leone and her father’s illness is Ebola.

The 31-year-old St. Paul resident who works for the St. Paul Public School District has been granted a leave of absence from the district to care for her father, but with certain conditions: She has to contact her doctor as soon as she returns to the United States and she won’t be allowed to go back to work or be at any school or district site for 21 days after she returns.


Kpaka-Sengita, a positive behavior coach with the school district, said she doesn’t plan to provide direct care for her 67-year-old father. But she said her family has been told that her father won’t be treated at a hospital until a $4,000 or $5,000 bribe has been paid.

“That is corruption at its greatest in a Third World country,” Kpaka-Sengita said.

Kpaka-Sengita, who is a U.S. citizen, said she hopes to go to the U.S. embassy in Sierra Leone to see if officials there can intervene to get her father treated at a hospital in Freetown, the country’s capital.

The U.S. State Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advised against nonessential travel to Sierra Leone, one of the countries in West Africa wracked by an Ebola outbreak.

“Traveling to countries where an Ebola outbreak is occurring could affect your ability to return home,” according to a CDC website.

“Those who have been exposed to Ebola or are sick with symptoms of Ebola will not be allowed to travel on commercial flights to the United States and potentially to other countries,” the CDC warns.

Abdullah Kiatamba, chairman of the Minnesota African Task Force Against Ebola, estimated there are 70,000 to 90,000 people from West Africa living in the Twin Cities, including 35,000 to 40,000 from Liberia, 5,000 to 6,000 from Sierra Leone and 4,000 to 5,000 from Guinea.

He said October, November and December is the traditional time for West Africans here to travel back to their homelands. In a normal year, “probably more than 5,000 people from Minnesota go to West Africa.”


But this year, his organization has been discouraging travel home by anyone except medical professionals. He said the task force is concerned that there will be a backlash against West Africans in Minnesota if there is a fear of travelers bringing the disease back here.

“There will be some folks who still will go,” he said.

Kpaka-Sengita said she’s aware of the risks of contracting the disease or the possibility of being stranded in Sierra Leone by travel restrictions.

“It’s constantly in my head,” she said. “I didn’t make the decision lightly to go.”

But in a statement in the online fundraising website GoFundMe, Kpaka-Sengita wrote, “I have never been a person to sit back and watch injustice take place for any reason. I am an American but I am also a Sierra Leonean.”

Her fundraising page, gofundme.com/mariama , has a goal of $6,700, which she said she will use to fund her trip and to help pay for efforts to provide education through radio broadcasts to children in Sierra Leone who have not been able to go to school because of the Ebola crisis.

“My decision to go home during this time is due to the love I have for my father and the thousands of Sierra Leoneans, Liberians and Guineans whom have died, infected with the Ebola virus and the thousands more whom have been affected due to the illness or death of a loved one,” according to Kpaka-Sengita. “I know the disease is deadly and travelling home at this time is extremely risky. However, I feel a call to act.”

Kpaka-Sengita said she plans to leave for Sierra Leone on Sunday and to return to the Twin Cities on Nov. 15.


Last week, the school district gave Kpaka-Sengita a letter quoting the CDC warnings against nonessential travel and noting that if she is exposed to Ebola in Sierra Leone, even if she isn’t sick, “the authorities may require you to arrange a charter flight home or stay there for at least 21 days until they ensure it is safe for you to travel.”

The letter, however, approved a leave for Kpaka-Sengita under the Family Medical Leave Act, or FMLA, with certain conditions:

  •  She must obtain medical certification of the need for the leave to care for her father.
  •  She has to call her doctor when she returns to the United States to evaluate her exposure level and any symptoms and consult with public health authorities to see if she needs testing or travel restrictions.
  •  She has to provide a boarding pass or other proof showing when she returned to the United States and agree not to return to any school or district site for 21 days after getting home.
  • She has to monitor her health for those 21 days - the incubation period for Ebola - and immediately seek medical care if she experiences any symptoms.
  •  She has to get a medical release from her doctor before returning to work.

The letter also notes, “While we certainly hope it is not the case, if you experience Ebola symptoms, you may request an FMLA for your own serious health condition.”
Kpaka-Sengita said she will be using vacation and sick time for the leave, but she said she expects the extra 21 days that she’ll have to stay away from work will mean she won’t get paid for some of the time that she’s on leave.

Laurin Cathey, executive director of human resources for the school district, said the district is extending Kpaka-Sengita an extra 10 days of vacation because of the requirement that she stay home an extra 21 days after returning.

Cathey also said if Sengita can document that she didn’t have direct contact with her father, she may not have to spend the entire 21 days away from work.

He said the district plans to have a conference call with Kpaka-Sengita, school staff and public health officials to evaluate her condition as soon as she returns to the United States

Cathey said in fashioning the requirements, the district has tried to balance Kpaka-Sengita’s desire to help her father with the safety of students.

“What we’re saying is the public health and safety of our students is the paramount concern,” he said.


Kpaka-Sengita said in her job, she mainly works with school district staff members, but she does have some student contact.

She was born and raised in Sierra Leone, but came to the United States with her mother, stepfather and brother in 1996 when her homeland was being torn apart by a civil war. She went to school at Hamline University and the University of St. Thomas, and worked for the Hopkins school district before coming to the St. Paul district about two years ago.

She said the last time she was in Sierra Leone and the last time she saw her father was in 2012. She said she expects to use a body suit to protect herself while in the country.

“My mother’s a nurse. I’ve gotten a lecture from her,” said Kpaka-Sengita, a single mother of two young daughters. “Nobody wants me to go.”

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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