Ebola’s Reach Is Felt In New York’s Little Liberia Community

Ebola’s Reach Is Felt In New York’s Little Liberia Community

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK — It used to be the civil war back home that worried Oretha Bestman-Yates, who came to the United States in 1987 from the West African nation of Liberia.

Now it is Ebola, a threat quieter than the automatic weapons that once rattled her homeland, but killing as steadily as an army on the march.

War you could flee. Not Ebola.

“Running away won’t solve the problem,” said Bestman-Yates, tight braids swinging back and forth as she shook her head. “If you have it, you’ll bring it with you. It’s not like the civil war.”

Bestman-Yates is a fixture in Little Liberia, a Staten Island neighborhood where thousands of Liberians fled to escape the conflicts that engulfed the country through the 1980s and ’90s. It is also home to large populations of immigrants from other West African nations, many of whom have been touched by the Ebola news unfolding thousands of miles away.

A family from Sierra Leone lost two nieces to the disease, Bestman-Yates said. Other people in Little Liberia are being pressured by relatives in West Africa to send more money so they can stockpile goods and avoid frequenting the region’s crowded markets. Rumors fly across the Atlantic, leading to panicked calls from home.

When Bobby Digi’s phone rang early this week, it was his mother in Nigeria.

“She said the person in the hospital in New York tested positive,” Digi said, referring to the unidentified man who was tested for Ebola at Mount Sinai Hospital but whose results were not yet back from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Digi doesn’t know where she got her information, which was wrong: Mount Sinai announced Wednesday that the man, who had traveled recently in West Africa, did not have Ebola.

As Digi spoke, the sounds and smells of Africa swirled around him as Little Liberia’s daily outdoor market came to life in a paved lot next to a brick apartment block. Women wearing elaborate head wraps and colorful dresses put out food to sell to neighbors yearning for the tastes of home.

Plastic jugs that once held American fruit juice were filled with thick, red palm oil. Fish dried and blackened, to be boiled for soups and stews, lay on tables. There were boxes of the starchy staple called fufu, bags of butter beans, cans of palm nut cream, and plastic tubs filled with greens and plantains.

This is a tight-knit community, where hugs are common, but Bestman-Yates sensed a shift when she returned late last month from a visit to the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

“I had people kind of pulling away,” said Bestman-Yates, who is president of the Staten Island Liberian Community Association. “My own Liberians! As if they were afraid.”

She was told to stay away from her job as a nursing assistant for 21 days, the length of the virus’ incubation period.

Bestman-Yates was not near any sick people. Instead, she was working with a Monrovian nonprofit, Liberia Crusaders for Peace, trying to convince Liberians to work with the outsiders who are coming into their communities to fight Ebola.

Bestman-Yates said when the illness first appeared in Guinea, some there thought it was a curse cast by a witch doctor.

Only after the witch doctor died did people begin to accept the virus was real, she said.

Then two American aid workers fell ill with Ebola, something Logan called a “blessing in disguise” because it focused attention on the outbreak. He said if were not for the Americans becoming infected, regional governments would have tried to keep the gravity of the situation quiet.

“That blew it wide open,” Logan said. Both aid workers were flown to the United States and are receiving treatment at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta.

Now, Bestman-Yates, Digi and the Rev. Philip S. Saywrayne, a Liberian clergyman on Staten Island, are organizing fundraising events to send money and equipment such as gloves and hand sanitizer to West Africa.

Bestman-Yates said the United States should do more in particular for Liberia, a nation founded by freed American slaves, whose first president was born in Virginia and whose flag is modeled after the U.S. stars and stripes.

Of the more than 920 people believed to have died in the Ebola outbreak, the World Health Organization says 282 have been in Liberia. Bestman-Yates says the real number is probably far higher, because many ill people probably did not go to hospitals and were buried in their villages.

Logan worries that if the disease keeps spreading, the West Africa community will be shunned. Already, he noted, Donald Trump opposed the idea of bringing the two ill Americans to Atlanta, even though they were transported in a specially equipped medical ambulance and are in isolation.

“You’re going to have more people jumping on that bandwagon,” he said.

Digi said he thought it would have made more sense to keep the Americans in Liberia, and to send a medical team to them. Then, he said, they could have shared the experimental serum given to the Americans.

“I think that would be fair, because people are dying by the day, by the hour, by the minute,” he said.

Digi dismissed Logan’s suggestion that it would be better to wait a few weeks to see whether the serum had any obvious effect on the Americans.

“People are dying in those weeks,” Digi said.

Bestman-Yates agreed.

“If we don’t do something about it now, between now and December,” she said. Then her voice trailed off and she simply shook her head.

AFP Photo/Inaki Gomez

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