Stories about the deadly Ebola virus that has swept through West Africa may have faded from newspapers and television screens, but the grave wound of the disease still lingers among immigrant communities in the northwest suburbs of Minneapolis.
Though news reports have pronounced the decline of Ebola cases, the virus has had a searing impact on millions of children in the Ebola-ravaged Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
“People are still talking about Ebola,” Abdullah Kiatamba, executive director of African Immigrant Services, said of the West African communities in Minnesota. “It’s not as widespread as it used to be, but the impact is still [felt] here.”
Kiatamba added that millions of people in the three countries are on the verge of death because of hunger and food insecurity.
A Save the Children report echoes a similar sentiment: “Children are always among the most vulnerable in an emergency. Across Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, an estimated 10.3 million children and adolescents under age 18 are directly or indirectly affected.”
Last Saturday, hundreds of people gathered in the Brooklyn Park Community Activity Center with nonperishable food donations. The event marked the launch of a food drive campaign by the Minnesota African Task Force Against Ebola to address the enduring stamp Ebola has left on the region.
The task force, which was formed last summer to help combat the epidemic and educate people about the disease, aims to gather 132,000 pounds of food items for the Ebola-battered orphans and neglected children in the region.
In collaboration with organizations already serving in West Africa, the task force will ship the donated food supplies to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.
Ebola has affected a majority of the West African community in Minnesota — with some of them losing as many as 20 family members to the virus.
“This is very personal to me,” Karifa Jalloh, president of the Sierra Leone Community in Minnesota, said of the food drive campaign. “Everybody that has heard or seen or read about Ebola has probably felt the pain with their eyes, but we feel it in our soul because it’s our people who were affected and who died.”
When Ebola struck West Africa nearly a year ago, Jalloh continued, health professionals and international organizations focused on containment and eradication of the virus, which has killed more than 9,000 people mostly in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, according to the World Health Organization.
Today, news reports about the decline of Ebola cases are unfolding as some of the regions battered by the outbreak open their borders, showing a sign of a return to normalcy after the deadliest Ebola epidemic in history.
For Minnesota’s West African communities, the focus turns to the children orphaned by disease, roaming the streets desperately seeking shelter and food.
“Imagine someone who has no source of income, cannot survive, there is no welfare state where somebody can be helped by the government,” said Kiatamba, who also chairs the Minnesota African Task Force Against Ebola. “So how do we intervene before it becomes another humanitarian crisis?”
“We will continue [the food drive campaign] until they can stand on their legs,” said Alhaji Mohamed Bah, president of the Guinea Community of Minnesota.
Farming is the mainstay of the economy of many West African countries, said Jalloh, but the Ebola epidemic has crippled the industry, causing a major food crisis across the region.
Jalloh explained how he thinks the outbreak affected agriculture: “Our people rely on subsistence farming, where [people get together in groups] and work from farm to farm. Ebola is against people gathering together.”
He continued: When Ebola hit, people began to keep their distance from one another in fear of contracting the virus. Still many able farmers succumbed to Ebola. “Now, we have areas full of widows and children.”
The virus has led many farmers to abandon their fields, causing people in rural areas of the affected countries to die from drought or disease, according to news reports.
Aside from the local task force efforts aimed to avert the food crisis in the region, some humanitarian organizations are responding to the crisis, creating food production opportunities for the Ebola survivors.
The World Bank, for example, has recently announced it’s offering $15 million in emergency funding to thwart the hunger crisis and revive farming in most-affected three West African counties.
“I think we should do everything we can to keep them alive,” Jalloh said of the Ebola survivors. “We cannot forgive ourselves if anybody dies of hunger now when we’re in this part of the world, where food is available.”