By Tarkor Zehn, Minnesota Public Radio Young Reporters Series.
Listen to the audio version of the piece here.
As the Ebola virus sweeps across West Africa, many in the Twin Cities Liberian community are feeling the pain.
Decontee Sawyer’s husband, Patrick, was the first American to die from the virus. He worked for the Liberian government and traveled between the two countries.
“It affected me and my family in ways I couldn’t have imagined or anticipated,” said Sawyer, a trained mental health counselor who specializes in working with trauma survivors. “Some of the biggest impact had to do with my own mental health and that of my 6-year-old, who is now asking me a lot of questions.”
Nearly 3,000 people in West Africa have died from the Ebola virus this year, the largest outbreak in history. About half of those deaths have been in Liberia. That’s brought the suffering to Minnesota, home to one of the largest Liberian enclaves in the U.S.
President Obama is sending U.S. troops to the country to help fight the outbreak. In the Twin Cities, Liberian leaders are working to provide education to combat myths about Ebola and raising money to help the cause abroad.
There have been a lot of questions about the disease, especially from local school districts, said Wynfred Russell, a Liberian leader who serves on the African Ebola Task Force, a local group that formed over the summer to answer questions and send medical supplies overseas.
“Parents have come forward and expressed issue with their children playing with children from West Africa,” Russell said. “The school districts and even the local colleges around are like, ‘OK, can you guys help us to put together some sort of message that we can send home by the kids to their parents so that they know, they understand how Ebola is spread and how Ebola isn’t spread?'”
Education is coming in many forms, including a recent prayer service at the Spiritual Church of God in Robbinsdale. The event was part informational, part spiritual. It featured updates from the Minnesota Department of Health and prayers from local pastors.
About 75 people attended. Some asked health department officials why the disease was spreading so rapidly. Others were concerned about the stigma.
Kellita Whisnant owns a restaurant in Brooklyn Park that serves West African cuisine. She told the crowd how fears of Ebola are affecting her business.
“I get a lot of feedback on customers that have stopped coming to eat out of fear because it’s an African restaurant,” she said. “We have people that are skeptical of coming to the restaurant or patronizing African food restaurants because they’re possibly thinking that they might catch a disease.”
Health officials at the event assured her that the disease was not spread through food.
Sawyer has three daughters, ages 6, 5 and 18 months. She says the oldest has been grieving while trying to make sense of what she’s been hearing about her dad and the disease.
After her husband’s death, she got therapy for her daughter and for herself. She talked about her experience at a recent meeting of the African Ebola Task Force at Brooklyn Park City Hall.
“We try to protect our children and there’s only so much you can do,” she said. “I found out that some things were out of my scope of being her mom-she needed professional help.”
Sawyer is starting a foundation to offer mental health support to families that have lost a loved one to Ebola and other infectious diseases. She also wants to provide financial support, educational awareness, and scholarship funds for the children of Ebola victims.
She says it was through her own grieving process that she decided to help others, including counseling.
“People are dying. And when people are dying and we can prevent those deaths, why not?
A memorial service to honor those who have died from Ebola, including Decontee Sawyer’s husband, is set for Saturday, Sept. 27.