There are more than 2,500 Liberians living in Baltimore and most have family members back home who were among the more than 4,000 West Africans who have died from Ebola. Some local families have lost multiple family members. And every time their telephones ring, they worry that it’s someone from home calling about more deaths from the virus. The death rate now is about 70 percent of those who contract the disease, according to the World Health Organization.
At their home in West Baltimore, Bobby Gborgar Joe and his wife Mabel Kennedy teased each other as they prepared tea but beneath the smiles, there was sadness in their hearts. Between the two of them, they've lost nearly 20 family members to Ebola.
“My sister went to a funeral with 67 others and ate rice and all 67 died who went to the repast,” Joe said.
Joe, a 60-year-old education specialist with the Maryland Department of Social Services and a former Baltimore city teacher, came to the United States in 1986. He grew up in Harbel, a large city that’s home to one of the world's largest rubber tree plantations. Harbel has been hit hard by the Ebola virus.
Joe remembered clearly when he got the first text messages of relatives’ deaths after the funeral they attended. “August 10 I got a text saying my sister Julia is dead, James is also dead, my younger brother, his wife, the son is dead, a niece,” Joe said. “The only person who survived is my sister's husband, who after a few days succumbed. There was a son who was taking care of him and he also died.”
So far, 12 of Joe's close family members have died from Ebola and he is worried about the others. “At this point, I'm being given the mute treatment. Every time I call, nobody wants to pick up the phone or tell me what's happening,” Joe said.
Hospitals throughout Liberia are at capacity with Ebola sufferers. Joe said most that test positive for the disease are quarantined in their homes. “My older sister luckily got in a hospital in Elwa, a religious hospital, but I don't know if she's cured, but she's still around,” he said.
Joe's wife, a program specialist with the D.C. superintendent of education's office, has lost six relatives to Ebola. A 23-year-old cousin, a nurse, died first and last week, a 19-year-old cousin and a high-school-age niece died.
Kennedy sat in a chair in the dining room, looking at pictures of family members on her cell phone. She laughed at a picture of a surviving niece who she said looks just like she did when she was young. The teenager’s father was an official with Liberia's health ministry and died from the virus first. The family was quarantined at home and Kennedy said they were given strong disinfecting spray to use at home, but no medical treatment. “I'm very afraid for the other niece because she was very close to her father and was with him all the time when he was sick,” Kennedy said. “I wish they could take them to a facility because they are at risk. I'm scared. One of my sisters just put on Facebook, ‘God, when will this end? Please have mercy on my family.’"
Kennedy, who came to the U.S. in 1987, said her faith keeps her going, as does the support of other family members in the area and her coworkers. When she heard of the first deaths, she was not able to go to work, but her coworkers were there for her. “They called me, emailed me, but I just got to the point where I'm like this is something I'll get every day or week,” she said. “I expect to hear worse news anytime, so I made up my mind that I'd go to work.”
Joe, who loves to tease people and makes jokes, said he's actually torn up inside. He can't turn on the television without hearing about Ebola. The news reports remind him of those he’s lost. He said he’s so upset that he had to take medical leave because his work suffered. Now, he’s seeing a counselor. “There are certain reports we do at work and mine were just not meeting expectations,” he said. “The boss called me and said what's going on? I told her, ‘I'm not here. I'm sitting here but I'm not here.’ She said ‘Oh no, you gotta go and rest,’ so that’s what I’m doing.
Ezax Smith, president of the Maryland Liberian Association, said there are nearly 7,000 Liberians throughout Maryland. Few have not been touched by the Ebola deaths back home, he said during a visit to Joe’s home last week. Smith said he often hears of deaths before the families here and passes the news to them. “Every week I get information on families that lost relatives,” Smith said. “There’s a constant fear this could hit anyone."
It even has hit Smith. He said a young cousin died, not because she had Ebola, but because she had diarrhea, an Ebola symptom. He said she tested negative for Ebola but her community would not let her return home. “My sister had a shop so she asked her to go there. They put a mattress in there for her. A day later, 300 people converged around the shop and said an Ebola patient (his cousin) was in the community and she had to leave. They called the police, emergency services came and they took her, they tested her and she didn't have Ebola,” Smith said. But Smith’s cousin died anyway from dehydration because her diarrhea went untreated.
Smith said so far, his six sisters and three brothers are healthy, but he’s concerned about his father, who suffers from recurring bouts of typhoid fever that require hospitalization. He said they’ve stocked up on the medicine he usually takes for typhoid in case they have to treat him at home. Last week, he lost a close friend to another illness because he could not get admitted to a hospital. “A friend of mine, who’s a lawyer, came from work and said to his wife, ‘I don’t feel too good.’ He was apparently having a stroke or heart attack,” Smith recounted. “She went to three hospitals and no hospital would accept him. She took him home and he died. Afterwards they discovered he had fluid on the brain. So people are dying from sicknesses other than Ebola and are not being accepted in hospitals because they are crowded,” Smith said.
As president of the Liberian Association, Smith reaches out to local Liberian families through the association's Web site and holds weekly meetings to help them cope with their losses. The group also has organized local fundraisers to help supply gloves, hand sanitizer, medical gowns, disinfectants and other much needed medical items to Liberia.
Sitting on a couch nearby, Joe hung his head as he listened to Smith talk about the latest news from back home. His pain was evident in his voice as he started to talk about deceased relatives, especially his oldest sister. She moved him from a rural area to the city when he was young, so he could go to school. The two sold oranges together at a sidewalk market and were very close. Joe said he was saddened that they were not able to have a funeral for her and other family members. “It means a lot for us when you see that person being interred, but when you know that person is not buried in a grave, that they were all burned, it makes it a little harder,” he said.
Joe and his wife said they do not know how many other relatives are sick with the virus. That’s partly because they said many fear if they acknowledge it, they will land in an Ebola camp, which they call death traps. Joe said they'd rather weather the virus at home and pray that they survive.