As Liberia declared a state of emergency Wednesday night, members of the local Liberian community quietly filed into a church hall in Northwest Washington, anxious for news about the Ebola crisis back home and to figure out how to help.
“[Hurricane] Katrina did not define the U.S.,” said Liberian Vice President Joseph N. Boakai, who addressed the group after taking part in the African leaders summit. “Let Ebola not define Liberia.”
Another member of the group of Liberian officials, foreign minister Augustine Kpehe Ngafuan, urged the crowd of more than 100 to call relatives in Liberia and ask them to heed warnings about the disease.
“Please call your people in the villages, tell your people, even if they don’t believe government officials,” he said. “Ebola is real.”
The town hall meeting at Trinity Episcopal Church was one of many events occurring across the United States as West Africans mobilize to try to help their friends and relatives in their Ebola-stricken homelands. Since March, 932 people have died of Ebola disease in Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria, according to the World Health Organization.
This week, Sierra Leone’s embassy in Washington is planning to send two loads of medical supplies, donated by Sierra Leoneans in the United States, to the home country. Suna Nallo, a Sierra Leonean with American citizenship who lives in Gaithersburg and is the executive director of the National Organization of Sierra Leoneans in North America, is helping to gather donations. Delivering them is a challenge, she said, because British Airways canceled flights to the country.
In Coon Rapids, Minn., Decontee Sawyer, the wife of Patrick Sawyer, the Liberian Ministry of Finance consultant who died of Ebola after arriving in Lagos, Nigeria, set up Concerned Africans Against Ebola to raise funds for organizations responding to the crisis. “There were steps that could have been taken, the steps they are taking now, and maybe then Patrick would still be alive,” she said in a telephone interview.
At the town hall meeting in Washington, people scanned handouts listing the supplies needed in Liberia and elsewhere: surgical gloves, protective suits, masks and body bags, for adults and children. “We have secured a warehouse in Baltimore, Maryland, for supplies,” said Liberia’s ambassador to the United States, Jeremiah C. Sulunteh. He assured the crowd that even small donations make a difference.
Conwree Zor, who was raised in the Liberian capital of Monrovia and lives in Silver Spring, Md., applauded the calls by Liberian officials to contact relatives in Liberia and give them information about the virus. She had begun organizing a grass-roots campaign aimed at getting Liberians in the United States to call loved ones in Liberia to explain the risks of Ebola to them in a way they can understand.
Zor’s mother, a former nurse who lived in the United States for 30 years and is an American citizen, lives in Monrovia. Zor said she told her mother, “Get out of there while you still can,” but that her mother, afraid she might spread the virus to her grandchildren, refused to leave.
Bleejay Innis, 25, who left Liberia when he was 7 and lives in the District, expressed concern, like others at the meeting, that funds might not go to the people in need.
“If we collect money, where does that money go, and is it going to be distributed?” he asked.
One man asked whether an experimental serum given to two Americans in Liberia was going to be made available to Liberians, a question many Liberians in the United States are asking.
“You can’t be angry at the U.S. for taking care of its people; at the end of the day it’s Liberian leaders that need to be challenged,” Innis said. “We have to help ourselves; our government has to prioritize our people the same way.”
He said his American friends don’t understand that many of the people in his country are in denial about Ebola, explaining that more than a decade after the civil war that racked Liberia, many young people still have no jobs, no education and no trust in government officials. “Instead of asking why people are ignorant, people should be asking, ‘This is a serious disease, why don’t these people trust their leaders?’ ” he said.
People at the meeting said they had seen videos of bodies of Ebola victims left to rot in the streets, even as the official delegation assured them that all bodies were being collected. One man asked Boakai why it had taken more than four months to convene a task force and close the borders.
“The government was hesitant to declare a state of emergency, due to the shock waves” for businesses, airlines and other national interests, Boakai said, adding that the country must not become a pariah nation. He said the economic damage to a country rebuilding its infrastructure is devastating.
At the end of the meeting, after a minute of silence and a prayer, the Liberian national anthem played as Boakai and the congregation held their hands to their hearts, singing, “We will over all prevail.”