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West African communities in Minnesota respond amid horrific loss due to Ebola

ST. PAUL -- In their fight against the Ebola outbreaks in their home nations, Minnesota's large West African communities have done many things: given food and money, held educational events and offered services of volunteer health care workers. A...


ST. PAUL -- In their fight against the Ebola outbreaks in their home nations, Minnesota’s large West African communities have done many things: given food and money, held educational events and offered services of volunteer health care workers.

As the disease ravages Africa, they’re coming to grips with the steep toll of what they’ve lost.

More than 4,800 people in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have died of the virus in the outbreaks, the most widespread in history. Many here with ties to those countries have lost family - and many more are inundated daily with the public fears and stigma surrounding Ebola.


“You have to fight the trauma,” said pastor Alexander Collins, executive director of the Liberian Ministers Association of Minnesota.

The association, which has more than 50 member churches, is working on a partnership with the Minnesota Peacebuilding Leadership Institute to train a first-response team to work with the community.

Collins’ congregations have been hit hard by the disease. One person has lost 17 family members. Another has lost eight, including her husband and her mother.

“We want to help them walk through the grieving process,” he said.

The training was developed in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said Donna Minter, the institute’s founder and executive director. Although the Ebola outbreak is very different, the reactions are much the same.

“Any time somebody experiences a traumatic event, their body and their brain goes through the exact same process,” she said. The training teaches participants to understand that process and steer victims toward positive coping strategies.

“They’re kind of like psychological first responders,” she said. “When people come to them, they have the resources to be able to help.”


No time to grieve

Arthur Biah, a nurse in Minneapolis and founder of the nonprofit Liberian Health Initiative, has been organizing educational forums on the disease. Those have focused in part on highlighting mental health services for those who need them.

That can be a tough sell in the West African community, he said.

“The African culture, we always put mental health as the last option,” Biah said. “We suppress the feeling, we suppress the emotion.”

One of Biah’s friends here lost his sister and brother to Ebola in the same week. He was still going to work because he had to pay the bills - and kept doing so until his boss, seeing he was far from OK, said it was time for a break and drove him home.

“People are not having time to grieve,” Biah said. “There’s so many people and it’s happening so fast.”

The disease has shoved aside traditional opportunities for closure. Ebola kills quickly - sometimes a week or two from onset. Family members of victims have been strongly discouraged from traveling to afflicted areas, and burial ceremonies are being discarded because of fears of transmission from bodies.

Guidelines from health organizations say infected bodies shouldn’t be embalmed, but instead buried in sealed bags and caskets or cremated.


“We are used to burying our dead,” said Mohamed Khan, president of the nonprofit group Sierra Leoneans in Minnesota. “That’s the last chance to hold them in your arms.”

Instead, when Ebola victims die in his home country, “they’re burying them as paupers.”

A generation wiped out

The psychological damage wrought by the disease comes a decade after civil wars in West Africa left their own scars. That pain is still there, said Wynfred Russell, executive director of the Brooklyn Park-based African Career, Education and Resources group, and Ebola

has added to the trauma.

“It’s already exacerbating some of the mental health problems that have been lingering,” Russell said.

Like the conflict before it, the outbreak has had an impact on every member of the community, he said.


Some people “have lost upwards of about 18 to 20 family members,” Russell said. “If you think about it for a second, it’s like wiping out an entire generation.”

Alvin Killough, a cultural psychology professor at the University of Minnesota-Crookston, is working to assess the psychological effects of the outbreaks on the West African communities here.

A still-in-development survey will ask people about what they’re thinking and feeling, how

they’re functioning, and how they’re coping amid the crisis.

“We’re essentially talking about post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said.

The survey is being tested and fine-tuned before it goes public. The goal is ultimately to deliver support services to those who need them, said Tanya Young, a professional counselor who is also working on the survey.

But getting there requires careful navigation in a culture more accustomed to seeking help from church leaders than from licensed professionals, she said.

Even terms like psychology and mental health can scare people away; instead, she’s pitching her work as “emotional wellness,” Young said.


“Going in for therapy, going in for group sessions, this is something very foreign, but it can be done,” Young said.

She said those who have lost family members aren’t the only ones who need help. Others may be struggling with the ubiquitous presence of Ebola in the news cycle, with sidelong looks from colleagues at work or with fears for loved ones overseas.

“I have my mother in Liberia. I have uncles, I have brothers,” she said. “This situation renders you helpless.”

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

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