In New York, West African Immigrants Cope With Ebola Crisis on Two Fronts

NEW YORK—Last Thursday, a few hours before New York City confirmed its first Ebola case, a group of African immigrants met to celebrate the end of a local soccer tournament. Men in suits clapped each other on the back. People greeted each other with outstretched arms. A buffet filled the art deco hall at the Bronx County Courthouse with the aroma of spicy food.

Ahmed Kargbo seemed upbeat as he circled the room, handing out flyers. But it can be hard for him to stay that way these days. "JOIN THE WALK TO END EBOLA," the flyers urged, in large red type. Karbgo, 45, wears a Bluetooth headset along one of his high cheekbones. He calls his mom in Sierra Leone twice a day and reminds her to make sure his nieces and nephews don't go outside.

New York immigrants with roots in Liberia, Guinea, or Sierra Leone started losing sleep over Ebola long before Dr. Craig Spencer, who treated Ebola patients in Guinea, was rushed to a Manhattan hospital. They're the New Yorkers most likely to lose loved ones to the virus—and to be associated with the disease and stigmatized.

Charles Cooper Jr., chairman of the Bronx Borough President's African Advisory Council (AAC), says African immigrants in New York worry about being quarantined. Undocumented immigrants worry about being deported. Parents worry about school bullies targeting their children. Many people worry about getting sick themselves.

But rather than hiding at home, community leaders are channeling their fears into action.

In a quiet corner at the Bronx event, Kargbo tried to explain why he took a week off work to organize an anti-Ebola rally. "This is very personal. And I can tell you, just looking at the images on YouTube, Google, social media—just looking at the symptoms...." He paused and looked down at his arms. "These are your people," he said softly. "The images are so unbelievable to look at."

Search "Ebola" online, and you'll see pictures of health workers in hazmat suits carrying dead bodies over dirt streets. Photos of dead children with blood trickling from their mouths, and black faces covered with a horrible, blistering rash. To date, more than 10,000 West Africans have fallen ill with the virus, and without better medical treatment, the majority of them will die.

The rapidly spreading disease and the fear it inspires has dealt a blow to the regional economies. "This is even worse than the civil war," Kargbo says of Sierra Leone. At least then people could escape as refugees. Now, "nobody wants to take us," he says. Many American politicians want to ban all travel from the affected countries.

Kargbo moved to America in 1991, before Sierra Leone's civil war broke out, and joined the U.S. Marine Corps. Now retired from the military, he works in Philadelphia for the Navy Department. Having built a life in a rich country, he feels a duty to help those in the poor one he came from. In his free time, Kargbo leads the Union of Sierra Leonian Organizations, a nonprofit that acts as an umbrella organization for community groups in New York State.

African immigrant individuals, churches, and community organizations have been raising money and gathering medical supplies to send to countries hard hit by Ebola. Community groups also play an important role in spreading public health information.

The AAC, for example, has worked with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the New York City Health Department to make sure the city's African immigrants know the symptoms of Ebola, how the disease is transmitted, and the steps to take if someone they know falls ill. There are more than 70,000 African immigrants in the Bronx alone.

Many immigrants pass the information on to loved ones in Africa. "When we last spoke with the CDC, one of the things that they had a big challenge with was getting the message out to folks in rural areas," Cooper says. A consultant who was born in Liberia, he tries to keep his own social network well informed.

Misinformation and suspicion is rampant here in the States as well. At the Bronx event, Kargbo told attendees about a recent subway ride. Nobody would sit near him, he said, perhaps because they were alarmed by his accented English. Never mind that he wasn't sick, and Ebola is only transmitted through direct contact with the bodily fluids of sick people.

The morning after Spencer's diagnosis, the New York City subway seemed as crowded as ever. During morning rush hour, one or two passengers wore surgical face masks, as if worried they'd inhale days-old traces of Spencer's rides on the A and 1 trains.

In the afternoon, about 60 African immigrant leaders and their supporters met in Times Square for a march to the United Nations headquarters to call for more international assistance to Ebola-affected countries. The protest, which Kargbo helped coordinate, was led by two other nonprofits: The United African Congress and the Give Them a Hand Foundation. "It's not going to be confined to those three countries if we continue our indifferent approach," UAC Chairman Mohammed Nurhussein said of the Ebola outbreak.

In addition to Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, a case was recently confirmed in Mali. A 5-year-old Bronx boy, who had recently returned from Guinea, was also taken to the hospital Sunday night with possible Ebola symptoms.

As the protestors strode down 42nd Street chanting "Stop Ebola now!" and "Ebola can kill!" passersby looked on with tense faces. Walking near the head of the crowd, state Sen. Bill Perkins, a Democrat, said that rallies like this help combat the panic Ebola can inspire. "We need to be attacking the problem, not running away from it," he said.