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Merlene Davis: Fear of Ebola hurting Liberians in Lexington

Ellen Natt, left, and Jenne Roberts, right, have traveled from Liberia to visit Jenne's mother, Jemima Roberts, center, in Lexington. An immigration official didn't make Natt feel welcome at the Atlanta airport in August and now Natt is unsure when or how she will return to Liberia with few airlines traveling there.
Ellen Natt, left, and Jenne Roberts, right, have traveled from Liberia to visit Jenne's mother, Jemima Roberts, center, in Lexington. An immigration official didn't make Natt feel welcome at the Atlanta airport in August and now Natt is unsure when or how she will return to Liberia with few airlines traveling there. Lexington Herald-Leader

Three women in Lexington want you to know how troubling the backlash from fears of Ebola can be.

All three were born in Liberia, which has been hard-hit by the Ebola virus, but one is now a U.S. citizen.

Ellen Natt, a Liberian, said when she came to the United States in August, an immigration officer at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport twisted his face and drew back from her before ordering her to move to the end of the line.

"The expression on his face told me how much he hated me," she said. "It hurt me so much."

When another immigration official told him he had to help her, the man refused to touch her passport, ordering her to read the information to him and then to put the passport in a zippered plastic bag.

Ebola hemorrhagic fever is a severe, often fatal illness that is transmitted by humans through bodily fluids. It first appeared in African countries in 1976, but the most recent outbreak in West Africa has been particularly devastating in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

But fears of Ebola have spread to other areas of Africa, Europe and the United States.

"It seems as though Ebola has stigmatized all Liberians when we get out of Liberia," Natt said.

She is in Lexington visiting her sister, Jemima Roberts, who came here in 2003 with her late husband, Bibi, to escape the war that was ravaging their homeland. Natt came to the U.S. in August to attend a United Methodist Church conference in Asheville, N.C., and will return to Liberia after Thanksgiving.

She is pretty certain of that because she has tickets for a return flight on Royal Air Maroc, one of only two airlines still flying into Liberia. The other is Brussels Air.

Natt's niece and Roberts' daughter, Jenne, however, is not quite sure how or when she will get home.

Jenne Roberts, her sister and her brother-in-law bought a round-trip ticket from Liberia on British Airways for an August visit that included celebrating Jemima Roberts' 70th birthday.

British Airways, however, has suspended flights to Liberia until the end of March because of the Ebola outbreak. Although she canceled her return flight in September in hopes of getting a refund which she could then use to purchase another ticket, Jenne Roberts said she was told she would have to take that matter up in Liberia, where the round-trip ticket was originally purchased.

"They have been giving us the runaround," Jemima Roberts said. "I don't want my children living in the United States illegally. Their visas are up in February."

To make matters worse, the brother-in-law was hospitalized for two weeks after arriving in Boston and is now undergoing rehabilitation there while he and his wife stay with his aunt.

"I have not seen my youngest daughter since she has been in America," Jemima Roberts said.

Jenne made her way to Lexington but is now stuck here.

All that despite the World Health Organization reporting last week that the rate of new Ebola infections has sharply declined. And none too soon, Natt said.

"It has devastated everything. The very fabric of Liberia is broken down," she said. "It is like you are in a war, but you cannot see your enemy."

Schools have been closed since May and businesses have shut down. Natt, a teacher at J.J. Roberts United Methodist School in Monrovia, said teachers are not paid when tuition is not paid.

Health care workers have flooded Monrovia where she lives, with information about the virus, she said. And it is working.

"Everyone has a bucket of chlorine water," she said. "You wash your hands 10 to 15 times a day. Every time you go out, when you come back you wash your hands."

Before entering office buildings in Liberia, each person has his or her temperature taken. If it is above 37-degrees Celsius, or 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, visitors must sit a few minutes and have it taken again before being allowed in.

Most people believe the sharp decline in new cases is due to the opening of more treatment beds, widespread acceptance of "safe burials" and cremations, quick identification and isolation of infected individuals, and breakthroughs in convincing Liberians that Ebola is real.

The epicenter for the virus in Liberia was Lofa County, Natt said, and there haven't been any new cases reported there for more than a month.

But now the country has to figure out what to do with the numerous orphans who have been left behind. Jenne Roberts said far too many of them have been shunned by surviving relatives.

And in case we have forgotten, Jemima Roberts, who is now a U.S. citizen, wants to remind us that Liberia was created by Americans for free American blacks and freed slaves.

"I want to appeal to my fellow Americans to not be afraid of Liberians," Jemima Roberts said. "We are just like you."

Natt agreed.

"People need to treat us like human beings," she said. "Ebola is not a commodity. It is a virus. No one buys it. It can go anywhere."

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