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Sunday, December 4, 2016

By Avi Selk, The Dallas Morning News

DALLAS — Children’s chalk drawings — a heart and a house — decorate the stoop outside Ebola’s ground zero in America. Window blinds hide the family sequestered inside the apartment. A guard in the parking lot makes sure no one knocks, and no one leaves.

This stucco-walled unit at The Ivy Apartments in Vickery Meadow is where an overseas visitor fell ill with Ebola last week, the first person to do so outside Africa.

The family that hosted Thomas Eric Duncan has been ordered to stay in the unit until doctors are sure they didn’t catch the deadly virus he brought from Liberia.

But as investigators retrace Duncan’s movements and national media throng at the Ivy’s gates, many residents inside remain ignorant and confused about the disease.

Most living at the Ivy are overseas immigrants who speak little or no English. Four days after Ebola in the U.S. hit the news, many residents still have no idea what the virus is — let alone that they lived next door to it.

Maria Lua calls the family in the apartment above her “the Africa people.” Like many complexes in Vickery Meadow, the Ivy takes in immigrants and refugees from all over the world — Ethiopians living next to Burmese living next to Iraqis.

Lua had trouble keeping track of who lived upstairs. Managers leased it to one adult with two children, but Lua regularly saw two women and four or five children. Visitors and other relatives whirled through daily.

“Too much family,” she said.

Lua never noticed Duncan while he stayed with the family last week — on a visit to Dallas after he helped carry an Ebola victim to a hospital in Liberia.

Duncan’s friends and relatives have told reporters that he spent much of the week in bed, losing his appetite and getting weaker as the virus strengthened.

But from her apartment downstairs, Lua noticed nothing unusual. She said two boys from the apartment looked healthy Saturday, when they played in the parking lot with her own children.

The next morning, an ambulance took Duncan away. Another neighbor told media that he vomited as he went, but Lua didn’t see that either.

And she’s hardly seen her neighbors since.

“Today no more. Only they stay in their apartment,” Lua said. “I nervous for my kids.”

Lua held a piece of paper — the same copy left on every doorstep at the Ivy after Duncan’s hosts were ordered not to leave their apartment after one of the children went to school Wednesday. The sheet listed basic facts about Ebola, and might have reassured Lua that only sick people can spread the virus.

But like many of her neighbors, Lua didn’t read English well enough to understand the paper.

As reporters swarmed the Ivy’s front gate and broadcast Ebola updates to the world, Lua still didn’t know what her neighbor’s house guest had been sick with.

Up and down the Ivy’s lot, residents puzzled over their Ebola sheets in broken English.

A Burmese woman thought the flu was going around the complex. Others pronounced the word “Ebola” for the first time.

After police swarmed the complex Wednesday — either to order Duncan’s hosts to stay indoors or to keep media at bay — David Mbusa thought someone had been murdered.

When Mbusa opened his door Thursday morning and found the Ebola fact sheet, his confusion turned to anger.

“I read it. It showed me the symptoms. I said, ‘What is it?'”

He wandered the complex for answers. He tried to ask a stranger in a suit what was going on, but the man just walked away. An apartment manager warned him not to talk to outsiders, he said.

But Mbusa was tired of being in the dark. So he marched up to a media gaggle at the front gate and held an impromptu news conference.

“I don’t know anything about Ebola!” he cried.

Afterward, Mbusa escorted a handful of reporters inside the Ivy’s gates, leading them into his nearly barren apartment while a manager made frantic phone calls in their wake.

By Thursday afternoon, most of the media had melted away. The police cars were gone and the Ivy’s residents went about their business as if they’d never been there.

At the apartment where Duncan fell ill, a young man opened the door to make a phone call in fresh air. He leaned against the frame, barred by law from going farther.

Cable news shows were reporting filthy conditions in the home — Duncan’s sheets and towels were still inside with the children, a relative told CNN. By the evening, there were reports the material still hadn’t been picked up.

Meanwhile, a food bank was keeping the family fed. The young man in the doorway looked happy and healthy. He waved off a straggling reporter and finished his phone call. Then he stepped back inside the dim.

Photo: Three women walk near the Ivy Apartments is under guard in Dallas, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014. The apartment complex is where Ebola patient Thomas Eric Duncan was visiting. (Nathan Hunsinger/Dallas Morning News/MCT)