For much of the past fall, they were the stigmatized face of the Ebola crisis in the United States, the too-close-for-comfort culprits, reminders of a boogeyman virus that was never supposed to visit Texas.
But as the year ends, members of the West African community in the Dallas area now have reasons to be cheerful.
First, they are no longer at the heart of the country’s Ebola panic. A crisis gripped Dallas when Thomas Eric Duncan arrived from the West African country of Liberia with the virus in late September. It did not abate until local hospital nurse Amber Vinson was declared Ebola-free a month later.
The stigma and ostracism West Africans in the Dallas area faced has given way to apologies, according to community leader Isiaka Sidibay.
Now that the threat of contracting the disease has dissipated, the community has started to come together, leading to a fund-raising effort that has garnered $10,000 in cash, medical equipment, clothing, and other supplies for victims of Ebola living in West Africa.
The main fund-raising event, staged in the Dallas suburb of Garland in early December, drew about 300 people and included individual donations as well as contributions from institutions. The gathering was anchored by a singer from the West African country of Guinea, Sekouba Kandia Kouyate.
The event was spearheaded by the Mandingo Association of Texas, a local organization for members of the 11-million-strong West African Mandingo tribe, in conjunction with other community groups representing people from the hard-hit countries of Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. An earlier fund-raising event had to be postponed when it fell in the middle of the Ebola crisis in Dallas.
The efforts in Dallas were part of a larger nationwide effort to generate funds and supplies for the poverty-stricken West African countries affected most by the Ebola outbreak. The drive has generated about $1.2 million worth of goods, says Mr. Sidibay, president of the Mandingo Association of Texas and a board member of umbrella group the Federation of Liberian Mandingo Associations in the United States. Further pledges are expected to roll in from other chapters, including large sums from New Jersey and Minnesota, he adds, with much of the cash set to be used to pay for shipment of the supplies.
“The fundraising was meant to kill two birds with one stone,” Sidibay says. “One, we wanted to help our community that was feeling alienated to say it doesn’t matter how people look at you – it only matters how you look at yourself. Second, we wanted to bring some support to our communities in West Africa.”
The Mandingos, a cross-border tribe scattered across West Africa, have been one of the hardest-hit communities, Sidibay notes.
“In one town, we lost 172 people instantly,” Sidibay says. “And these are things that are happening in every [West African] community. We are part of every community. So this isn’t for Mandingos; it is for victims no matter their tribe or religion. We are part of a bigger picture.”
Life in Dallas, meanwhile, has regained some normalcy. The stigma attached to anything West African, perceived or otherwise, has relented. Sidibay says the sense of restored calm is almost palpable.
“When the Ebola crisis was going on, hair-braiding salons run by people not even from West Africa saw their business collapse,” he says. “Even from some Africans – including an Ethiopian taxi driver – I received some words asking me where I am from.
"Now that the dust has settled there is sense of relief. If I speak with a white man or another race, they are now coming forward saying it was not right what happened.”