Amel Ahmed / Al Jazeera America

In Little Liberia, expats nervously eye those returning from Africa to NYC

Residents of Staten Island, home to the largest Liberian population outside Africa, fear for loved ones back home

STATEN ISLAND, New York — In Little Liberia, some 4,500 miles from where Ebola has ravaged parts of West Africa, the disease is still taking a toll. As fear and rumors spread around this enclave in New York’s Staten Island — home to the largest concentration of Liberians outside Africa — so, too, have stories of lost relatives and fracturing communities.

“I told my mom to stay away from that lady,” said Assie Jalloh, gesturing toward an apartment building near where she was picking up groceries on Targee Street in the Clifton area of the borough.

The object of her concern was a woman who recently returned from West Africa, said Jalloh, a nurse and a Sierra Leonean expat. She favors a mandatory 21-day isolation period for all travelers arriving from the affected countries.

In Little Liberia, Jalloh is not alone in her concern. Many Liberian-Americans share her fears. Momo Fully, a father of four, lost his cousin to Ebola in August. He worries the disease, which has killed more than 3,000 people in West Africa, could take hold in the United States.

“People go back and forth all the time. There’s always the possibly of Ebola coming to America and spreading,” he said.

Health experts stress that despite the first Ebola diagnosis on U.S. soil, chances of an outbreak are very slim, given the far superior hospital services here.

‘People go back and forth all the time. There’s always the possibility of Ebola coming to America and spreading.’

Momo Fully

resident of Little Liberia

Nonetheless, the development has added to the existing jitters among Little Liberia’s residents.

“This is the sad reality. If my own brother came from Africa, I wouldn’t be comfortable meeting him," Fully said.

He faces another burden. Since the death of his cousin, he and his wife have been providing financial help for the man’s wife and children. “We are all they have now. We have to support them,” he said.

As he spoke from his living room, in a Park Hill Avenue apartment brimming with members of the Liberian diaspora, a live radio program played in the background airing the latest news from Liberia. Fully explained that he keeps himself updated on the outbreak by listening to a Liberian station via his computer.

But some in Liberia are less informed, he said.

“Can you believe that there are still people in Liberia who don’t believe this disease exists? I was there in June,” said Fully. “I saw many things … girls on the beach hugging each other while people were dying in their homes. Liberians weren’t taking it seriously.”

Denial and “irresponsible” behavior contributed to the outbreak, Fully said. “A lack of awareness and education is a major issue … It’s killing us.” 

An international crisis

Stephen Charyoe, whose mother and sisters live in Liberia, watches as Clifton residents play checkers, Oct. 1, 2014.

This lack of awareness among some Liberians has been coupled with an understaffed, underequipped health care system serving them. At the start of the outbreak, the nation of 4.3 million people had as few as 50 doctors.

Liberia ranks among the poorest nations in the world and is still recovering from the effects of a 14-year civil war that ended in 2003. That bloody conflict boosted the numbers of immigrants fleeing to the U.S. Many ended up in Clifton, which boasts a an estimated 11,000 Liberians, with many residing along Park Hill Avenue.

Strong links to Liberia remain, with families straddling the two countries. For many in this enclave, the main concern is for those back home.

And while this section of Staten Island is still bustling with lively rounds of street checkers, a modest farmers market and African restaurants, life in Liberia is largely on pause, residents say.

“Schools and universities have shut down. People don’t leave their homes because they are afraid,” said Clifton resident Stephen Charyoe, whose mother and sisters remain in Liberia.

Speaking in the farmers market, he called on the international community to up its efforts against the disease. The war against Ebola requires a global commitment, he said. “Like Obama said, Ebola doesn’t just affect Liberians. It’s an international problem that must first be confronted in Africa, where it all began," said Charyoe.

“Could you ever imagine that we’d have a case of Ebola in Texas? No one imagined it would reach here,” he said. “But people travel. Liberia needs doctors, yes, but they also need troops to contain what is now an international crisis.”

Others were less convinced by the decision by their adopted country to send 3,000 troops to help stem the spread.

“Their presence won’t help. Why would you send troops instead of doctors? This is not a war. Liberia needs doctors, not soldiers,” Fully said.

Transcontinental rumor mill

The daily Clifton farmers market is a fixture in this predominantly Liberian neighborhood.

While doctors and troops attempt to contain the virus in Liberia, in Little Liberia rumors and innuendo about Ebola continue to spread. Some residents reported stories of the virus’ spread through the sharing of cellphones or the handling of produce.

The latest rumor to grip the community involves an alleged ban on food shipments to Liberia. “How will they eat? Even if there is disease, people still need to eat,” Jenny Bueh said angrily as she packed up her vegetable stand after a day working at the farmers market.

The Liberian Embassy in Washington told Al Jazeera that such rumors were counterproductive. “We don’t want people getting into panic mode, because you cannot address this epidemic with that kind of attitude,” said Gabriel Williams, an embassy spokesman.

As for a food ban, he said, “the rumor has no basis in fact.” 

Social fragmentation

Still, the biggest concern expressed by residents Al Jazeera spoke to was the possibility that Ebola may find its way to Clifton. Like the woman Jalloh spoke of, seemingly ostracized by the community, a cloud of suspicion hangs over all those who recently traveled to West Africa, some residents reported.

The increasing social fragmentation experienced by West African communities, in and outside Ebola-ravaged regions, is an unwelcome byproduct of the disease.

Ebola’s evisceration of social bonds has in some instances extended not only to the right to travel and gather with peers but also to the ability to mourn loved ones and say a final farewell.

When a cousin of Charyoe’s died recently from Ebola, the Little Liberian warned his mother not to attend the funeral. “I told her to stay away. It’s not safe to travel in these conditions,” he said.

His concerns have some grounding. Health care experts have suggested that attending funerals in Ebola-stricken regions can trigger a wider breakout. Stephen Gire of Harvard University, who helped map the genetic code of this particular Ebola strain, has traced a resurgence of the strain to the funeral of one healer in Guinea. He suggested that more than a dozen mourners contracted the disease, probably through washing or touching the body.

“You had this huge burst after it looked like the outbreak was starting to die down,” he told The Associated Press in August. "

In Little Liberia, Charyoe, who calls often to check on his mother and sisters, said he cautions his family to stay indoors as much as possible. “I tell my mom to stay away from the streets,” he said. “If you need to get food, come back right away."

For their part, Clifton residents are determined to do what they can to help their brethren back in Liberia. The Staten Island Liberian Community Association plans to hold a fundraising concert this Sunday at Christ Assembly Lutheran Church.

Its Facebook event page reads, “Next Sunday, we go to war against Ebola.”

With news services

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