West African community in Dallas rallies around family of Ebola patient

The tight-knit community of Liberian immigrants and refugees in the Dallas area has led an effort to aid the family of the Ebola patient. Those from West Africa are also trying to spread calm and create better awareness.

Tony Gutierrez/AP
Three children on their way home from school stop to peer through the gate down at a building at The Ivy Apartments, Thursday, Oct. 2, 2014, in Dallas. A man diagnosed with having the Ebola virus was staying with family at the complex.

For much of the week since the first case of Ebola detected stateside was revealed amid a series of reported hospital and health authority blunders, there has been a steady stream of fear, alarm, and misinformation.

But behind the scenes, away from the frenetic activity created by a throng of TV trucks and the media's voracious appetite for what went wrong, another story of community compassion and brotherhood has been playing out.

The tight-knit community of Liberian immigrants and refugees in the Dallas area has led the effort to aid the family at the center of the furor. 

Members flocked to support the victim, Thomas Eric Duncan, a Liberian national; a woman believed to be his partner; and family members after learning of their identity. At the top of mind are the family's health and potential ostracism they may experience, community members said.

Alben Tarty, a spokesman for the Liberian Community Association of Dallas-Fort Worth, said that his group has been in constant contact with the woman to provide help in whatever capacity possible as they continue to be monitored under quarantine for signs of the virus. Four individuals – including at least one child – are confined to the apartment where Mr. Duncan had been staying in northeast Dallas prior to his admission to the nearby Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital.

"We cannot visit them right now, but we are on the phone to see how we can help and support them," Mr. Tarty says. "That is why we let them know they are in our prayers."

The association plans a vigil – an exact date is yet to be determined – outside the hospital as a show of solidarity with their countryman. Liberia tops the four countries in Africa where Ebola has been reported, with 3,700 cases.

With the affected family now quarantined in their apartment for a period of up to 21 days, the North Texas Food Bank has stepped in, at the behest of the American Red Cross, to supply much-needed food, says Jan Pruitt, president and CEO of the food bank. A parcel with enough food to last three days was dropped off for the family Thursday and contained produce, cereal, milk, tuna, pasta, and rice. She and her staff are ready to provide further supplies in the coming days, Ms. Pruitt adds. It is a bit of needed good news after authorities turned away the company that was going to clean the family's apartment for not having the correct permits, CNN reports.

People from neighboring countries affected by Ebola are also stepping up. 

Isiaka Sidibay, president of the Mandingo Association of Texas, which brings together members of the Madingo tribe in Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone, is planning to hold a fundraiser for victims in West Africa next month. (It was originally scheduled to be held Sunday, but Mr. Sidibay says organizers decided to postpone the event to placate fears over the further spread of Ebola.)

“The Guineans in Dallas are safe, but calls were still made to find out if they were in the area where this case happened and also to educate people,” Sidibay says. “We have families here in Dallas who have lost people to Ebola in Africa. We want to show solidarity and create as much awareness about Ebola as possible. While this thing is bad, it has created awareness and brought out support in the African community. This is our home.”

He says about $1,500 has been raised so far and that he has been working with the president of the Liberian community association to assist its outreach efforts.

Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, and, to a lesser extent, isolated parts of Nigeria are ground zero in the fight against Ebola. More than 7,000 cases have been reported in the region, with more than 3,300 deaths. 

In the 5,000-strong Sierra Leone community in the Dallas-Forth Worth area, members there, too, are trying to spread calm. Foday Fofanah, of the charity effort Sankofa, is heading up moves to raise aid and awareness for the Ebola outbreak in his home country, encouraging Americans to get involved. Sierra Leone has the second-highest number of cases, with 2,300. 

Former Dallas mayoral candidate Ed Okpa, originally from Nigeria, said he believed a host of mixed messages from authorities had contributed to confusion and chaos, but thinks the problems that beset the Dallas case will prove a salutary lesson for public health going forward.  

In light of some of the more alarmist reactions to the case – there were suggestions a travel ban should be imposed on those traveling from West Africa to the United States – he cautioned that people should be more circumspect.

 "We've got to be a little more careful and certain when we throw out some of these things," Mr. Okpa says.

In Dallas, up to 100 people who had direct or indirect contact with the victim are being either interviewed or monitored for symptoms of Ebola. Dave Daigle, spokesman for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the CDC would separate them into one of three groups: high risk, low risk, and no risk. 

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has pleaded for calm, seeking to dampen fears by insisting there is “zero chance” of anyone spreading the virus if they are not exhibiting symptoms. 

The Dallas area counts tens of thousands of immigrants from West Africa alone, including an estimated 10,000 from Liberia. In the area where Duncan was staying, there are about 2,000 Liberian immigrants, according to community members. Vickery Meadow, also known colloquially as the Ellis Island of Dallas, is a smorgasbord of ethnic cultures, made up largely of immigrants and refugees.

Despite some of the more extreme reactions by members of the public, Tarty of the Liberian community said he does not sense any overt expressions marginalizing or stigmatizing Africans because of Ebola. He says he has been warmed by the positive reaction he has witnessed from the wider Dallas community, believing the more extreme reactions are confined to those who are uneducated about the virus. 

“We in the Liberian community hope that stigmatization does not happen,” says Tarty. “I have not experienced that yet. The wider community has been supportive. My company gave me some extra paid time off to help in my community. They said to me, ‘You have not done anything wrong.’ ”

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