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For West Africans in Maryland, Ebola is a call to action

Willie Korbor, a Liberian who now lives in Middle River, is the welcome coordinator at Redeemed Christian Church of God. The church is collecting supplies to send to Liberia in response to the outbreak of Ebola.
Willie Korbor, a Liberian who now lives in Middle River, is the welcome coordinator at Redeemed Christian Church of God. The church is collecting supplies to send to Liberia in response to the outbreak of Ebola. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun)

While they wait for word on the status of loved ones, they're sending out food, medical supplies and Western Union money transfers. Some are already mourning family deaths, while others fear having to do the same.

All seem to be pushing ahead.

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Marylanders who are part of the West African diaspora — one of the largest concentrations in the United States — are facing a complicated sense of responsibility as Ebola continues to ravage their homelands.

Far removed from the threat — though at times the target of fearful strangers — the Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea natives say they are a critical part of the expanding fight against Ebola.

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"You have to realize that everything is global," said Watchen Harris Bruce, a Liberia native who lives in Silver Spring and works often in her home country as a high-level USAID program administrator. "There is a saying in Liberia: 'The rain does not drop on only one house.'"

Few in Maryland who hail from the three nations lack some connection to the disease, whose latest outbreak has claimed more lives than all others combined. Nearly 5,000 have died and many thousands more have been infected.

"Looking back toward the land you left to come to America, it is really painful to see what they're going through now. It's even worse knowing that the virus could hit your own family [over there] at any time," said Patrick Nepay, a Baltimore pastor who immigrated from Liberia in 1995. "There's that fear of getting that phone call that a family member has contracted the virus. Once that happens, you know it's likely that others you love will as well."

The expatriates, even those from countries outside the outbreak, are closely watching developments. Mariam Traore, a 29-year-old Ivory Coast native who works at the Heritage International Foods market in Randallstown, worries for her home country after hearing that officials reopened its borders with Guinea and Liberia earlier this month.

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"To open the border, basically, to me, is suicide," Traore said, expressing concern for her relatives there.

According to U.S. Census data released this month, Maryland stands only behind New York, California and Texas in its number of residents from Africa, with an estimated 120,000. Of those, nearly half are from West Africa — though many of those are from Nigeria, recently declared Ebola-free.

The Washington and Baltimore metropolitan statistical areas both fall within the top 15 areas in the country with the largest African-born populations. The reasons vary, but the state's proximity to Washington is likely one of them.

In Sierra Leone, when teenagers dream of leaving the country for more opportunities, many land in Maryland because "in West Africa all they talk about is Washington, D.C., and London," said Patricia Thorp, a nurse in Laurel who grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital.

Because of its large number of African immigrants, Maryland has become a hub of grassroots Ebola relief.

Several Baltimore-area churches have begun collections. "Individuals are bringing in materials, personal protective equipment, Chlorox disinfecting wipes, but we need more cash," said Willie Korbor, a 32-year-old Liberia native, Middle River resident and parishioner of the Redeemed Christian Church in Essex.

Nepay, pastor of the Bethel World Outreach Church in Hamilton, is asking for donations for protective gear, dry foodstuffs and more, donations he says he's sending to the Bethel church international headquarters in Silver Spring.

Sending quarantined people such supplies, he said, can communicate a spiritual message.

"Fear and desperation alone can destroy a person, and support can boost one's energy to fight the disease. I applaud the quarantine efforts, but in the midst of that, we also communicate that we care by what we give. It's crucial that people feel, 'Yes, we are loved; even in our misery, we are loved.'"

Aiah Fanday, 46, moved from Sierra Leone in 1986, attended the University of Maryland, College Park and now lives in Upper Marlboro. He has been the vice president of the nonprofit Friends of Sierra Leone for 15 years. Ebola has ramped up the group's efforts to collect money, he said.

It has paid for radio spots to run in Monrovia stressing hygiene and proper precautions against the virus. Sending packages to the country has become more difficult, so the group is shifting to issuing $1,000 grants to families and small groups.

"We realize it will be easier with cash," Fanday said.

Byme Taylor, a Liberian native who lives in Beltsville, hasn't been to his home country in seven or eight years, though he has worked in other parts of Africa doing humanitarian relief work, including with Sudanese refugees. He is desperate to return to see his family now, having lost a brother and several other relatives to Ebola.

"The death of my brother, it's having a big toll on me and my family," he said.

Still, his commitment is to providing humanitarian aid. He is working with natives of Guinea and Sierra Leone to coordinate relief for those affected by Ebola, including orphaned children and families facing malnutrition because the outbreak has left many shuttered in their homes and without work.

"Everyone is looking up to the humanitarian response now in the country," Taylor said. "People who are dying are not just dying from Ebola."

Maryland also has a strong presence in relief work overseas. Catholic Relief Services, the Baltimore-based international humanitarian arm of the U.S. Catholic Church, maintains a significant presence in more than 30 African nations, including Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, and the organization has been ramping up efforts in the three severely stricken lands.

Michael Stulman, Catholic Relief's regional information officer for West Africa, said in a phone call from Sierra Leone that the organization already has 160 workers in the countries. It is adding more in Liberia, while keeping levels the same in the other two countries.

The organization has kicked in an additional $1.5 million to bolster its Ebola response, a campaign that calls for sending workers into every region they can reach, spreading the word about best safety practices, and helping bolster the nations' medical effectiveness.

Though the disease has hardly affected the United States, some who immigrated long ago say they have been treated differently since the outbreak began. A Liberian man brought Ebola to Dallas, where he died of the virus, and two American nurses who treated him contracted it but have since recovered.

Chioma Anucha, a 45-year-old native of Nigeria who lives in Owings Mills, said she was outraged to learn a small two-year Texas college recently rejected applications from Nigerian students, citing Ebola. The school, Navarro College, later said that the students had been sent "incorrect information regarding their applications."

That country had 20 cases of Ebola and eight deaths, but the World Health Organization declared it free of Ebola on Thursday.

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"They have myopic minds," Anucha said. "That is not acceptable."

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Egerton Aki MacCormack, a 61-year-old systems administrator in College Park who is from Sierra Leone, said he has also experienced fear from others, but thinks it is understandable — and, within reason, fundamental to preventing Ebola's spread. One colleague recently hesitated before giving him a hug, stopping to ask if he had recently visited his home country because she knew he makes the trip every year.

"I said no, and she said, 'Oh, OK, come give me a hug,'" he said. "I didn't take offense to that. ... People have to safeguard themselves."

Some of the relief work that normally goes on in West Africa has been halted over Ebola concerns.

A group of University of Maryland, College Park students has been working with a community in Sierra Leone since 2012 on projects including a solar-powered lighting system and rainwater catchment and treatment system at a primary school. But plans to begin construction of a new secondary school are stalled because of the outbreak, said Madieu Williams, a former football player for the university and the NFL whose foundation is supporting the efforts.

For those still living in West Africa, some change in behavior is a must, said Fanday. When he talks to his mother in Sierra Leone, he says his message to her is clear: "Stay home. This is not a time to socialize."

But Bruce said a certain amount of work must continue — particularly as it relates to the Ebola outbreak.

As head of USAID's Investing for Business Expansion Program in Liberia, Bruce was evacuated from the country 60 days ago. When she arrived in the United States, she said she "self-quarantined" herself for the first 21 days.

But 17 of her local staff members remained in Monrovia, and she has been on the phone with them every day since, she said. Their mission facilitating loans for small and medium-sized businesses in Monrovia and throughout Liberia must continue — it's more important now than ever, as Ebola threatens the nation's economy.

Since the Ebola outbreak began, the group has closed on more than $1 million in loans for small businesses, she said, many for contracts providing medical supplies or the construction of new medical facilities with beds for Ebola patients.

"We want people to know there is hope," she said, "instead of focusing on all of the sad stories."

Baltimore Sun reporter Jonathan Pitts contributed to this article.

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The African diaspora in Maryland

120,000 – Africa-born Maryland residents

48.7 – Percent of Africa-born Maryland residents from West Africa

15 – Percent of foreign-born Marylanders from Africa

2nd – Washington, among statistical areas with largest African populations

12th – Baltimore, among statistical areas with largest African populations

Source: U.S. Census American Community Survey

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