Jerome Delay / AP

‘I feel I have no future’: Thousands orphaned by Ebola face stigma

In Sierra Leone, kids who survive Ebola or whose parents died from the virus are often shunned

FREETOWN, Sierra Leone — Aminata, 17, was told her mother died from Ebola. But standing on a porch staring high over the hills of Freetown, she insists it was a toothache.

“It wasn’t Ebola. She had a bad ache, and then it got infected. Her gums swelled and burst. I know that is what killed her, not Ebola. I was with her when she died in our house here,” Aminata said.

Aminata, 17, is temporarily living with her aunt after her mother died of Ebola.
Nina Devries

Aminata is one of thousands of children who have lost one or both of their parents to Ebola. The stigma against those with any connection to the virus has led many children orphaned by Ebola to be abandoned by their families, friends and even entire communities.

She, her mother and about 50 other people were quarantined in their small neighborhood in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, for 42 days. Normally people or communities are quarantined for 21 days after exposure to Ebola, the incubation period for the hemorrhagic fever. But because two people died during the quarantine, including Aminata’s mother, the time was doubled.

Aminata said that when her mother died, health workers took her away before she had a chance to say a proper goodbye. 

Traditionally in Sierra Leone, grieving family members wash and touch the bodies before burial, one reason the virus has spread so rapidly. But for those in mourning, not being able to say goodbye is heartbreaking.  

“I can’t pay traditional rites to my mother, I don’t even know where she’s buried … It’s so hard,” said Aminata. “My mother was a source of strength to me. Now that she’s gone, I feel I have no future.”

Not only has she lost her mother, but she has also lost friends: Since the quarantine, her best friend has rejected her.

“She doesn’t want to come close to me, and my other friends make fun of me and point fingers at me,” said Aminata.

UNICEF recently estimated that close to 4,000 children have lost one or both parents to Ebola so far, with many being shunned by their extended families and communities. 

Braima Sellu, the program manager for GOAL, an international humanitarian organization working with Ebola victims in West Africa, said the group has helped about 250 orphans in Sierra Leone, including Aminata, who is now temporarily living with her aunt.

According to the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, as of Oct. 10, there were approximately 1,450 children orphaned by Ebola in Sierra Leone, a number that will keep rising along with the disease's death toll, which currently stands at 4,447 across West Africa. The ministry has set up 14 interim care centers across the country.

Sellu said that because of the stigma, it’s common for people to deny that their family members died of Ebola. 

“People are often ashamed, and so they hide it by saying the deceased died from something else,” he said. “I think with Aminata's mother, it was in fact Ebola.”

“Some people think children affected by Ebola are witches. They blame them,” said Sellu. “And if they have Ebola or their parents have Ebola, people in the community turn their backs on them.”

Abu Bakar, left, 6, and Issa, 9, are living with a family friend after their mother died of Ebola. They don’t know where their father is.
Nina Devries

Abu Bakar, who is 6, and his 9-year-old brother, Issa, were in the same quarantined compound as Aminata. Their last memory of their mother is watching her being escorted down from the high hills where they live. She died in a hospital shortly after that. 

The boys don’t know where their father is. A family friend agreed to take care of them after no one else would. “There’s less children playing with us now, but we feel OK. We still have some friends,” Issa said.

Sellu said the situation is most difficult for children no one will take in, like Julius, 13, nicknamed Jo Jo. He has not seen his parents since he was about 4 years old and spent the last several months living with a family friend after his grandmother became too old to care for him. The family friend contracted and died from Ebola, leaving Jo Jo first under quarantine in a hospital for three weeks and then alone.

No one has been able to reach Jo Jo’s other relatives, who live in a village that is under quarantine. He is now in an orphanage.

Jo Jo, 13, is living in an orphanage after a family friend who was taking care of him died of Ebola. He hasn’t been able to get in touch with his extended family.
Nina Devries

“I felt lonely in that hospital. I used to have my friend to play with, but he has also died from Ebola,” said Jo Jo. “I wish things could go back to the way they were. I’m not feeling happy.”

According to Brother Lothar Wagner, the director of child aid organization Don Bosco Fambul, orphans are particularly vulnerable in Sierra Leone.

“There is a concern that Ebola could create more child trafficking, [which] happened during the civil war here,” he said.

“Children lost parents and ended up with strangers, and they were misused, went to the street and eventually came to Don Bosco. I have a fear this will continue for the next couple of years … We have to act now to prevent having those children again on the street.”

According to the British charity Street Child, there are about 50,000 children living on the streets in Sierra Leone.

Rochelle Martin, a pediatric nurse from New Zealand who volunteers with the British charity Kings Sierra Leone Partnership, says the patients in the Ebola ward at Connaught hospital in Freetown experience things a child never should.

She said a 4-year-old Ebola patient watched his father convulse and die. The medical staff covered the boy’s eyes while they cleaned the body and the room, but when the boy saw the empty bed, he started wailing.

“It’s really hard, especially as a pediatric nurse. When you see a child crying, immediately the first instinct is to pick them up and comfort them,” Martin said. “But in an Ebola setting, you can’t do that. It’s too dangerous. A child could pull at your [protective gear], pull at your face mask or vomit on your shoulder, and that exposes staff, puts us at risk. It’s really hard emotionally.” 

Martin said she has even seen cases in which children survived Ebola but were turned away by their parents.

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