As Parents Fall Victim to the Virus, War-Era Orphanages Return
Courtesy of the Wall Street Journal In Ebola-affected Liberia, Orphanages make a tragic comeback
Since August, nearly 40 children recently orphaned by the virus have turned up at her dusty compound of low-slung brick buildings. They play around a fire used for cooking while Ms. Dunoh works her cellphone in search of neighbors and relatives willing to take in another mouth to feed.
Finding new parents for orphaned children is a job Ms. Dunoh performed for 13 years, when Liberia teemed with thousands of children who had lost parents during 14 years of almost continuous fighting. The last war-era child left her care in 2011.
To Ms. Dunoh’s dismay, children bereaved by Ebola are now proving an even tougher sell than those who lost parents to bullets and machetes during those nightmarish years.
“Ebola is making us even afraid of our own children,” she said. “If they come out alone, it will be worse than the last time. This society will not be at peace.”
The scourge of Ebola is creating thousands of orphans in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, raising fears of a new lost generation in countries still recovering from horrific civil conflicts.
Liberia and Sierra Leone have struggled mightily to return former child soldiers and street children—many traumatized and illiterate—to some semblance of normal, productive lives. The challenge of preventing the loss of another generation of youth has returned in force, this time compounded by the stigma of hailing from a family afflicted by the virus.
Ebola has killed more than 4,800 people across the region, according to the World Health Organization—a tally the group says is low because it doesn’t include all the people dying at home. The WHO says there could be 10,000 new cases a week by December if the epidemic isn’t curtailed.
The United Nations Children’s Fund says at least 3,700 children in Ebola-affected Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone have lost a parent to Ebola. The number orphaned children is soaring along with the death toll.
Together with Liberia’s government, organizations such as Unicef, Doctors Without Borders and a network of Catholic clinics are working to place the children in new homes, mainly those of relatives and friends in Liberia. That is proving difficult, however, with the fear and shame of Ebola reinforced by the daily, all-consuming efforts to avoid catching the virus.
Jugs of chlorinated water stand outside public buildings for people to wash their hands. Roadside grills have stopped serving “bush meat”—the generic phrase for captured and butchered monkeys, rats and bats that researchers say can be a conduit for disease. People avoid public places for fear of touching someone with Ebola. Schools are closed.
“There’s no business at all,” says Christiana Miller, who sells dishes at a normally crowded market in Monrovia.
These precautions, while necessary, have also bred hostility toward Ebola survivors and relatives of those the disease has killed. Miatta Abdullai Clark, a Unicef child protection officer who helped disarm child soldiers caught up in more than two decades of civil war here, says it may even be harder to help children now.
“With this virus, everybody wants to run away,” she says.
Last week. Hawa Fahnbulleh, a Liberian social worker with Doctors Without Borders, tried to find a new home for a 12-year-old girl who survived Ebola but lost her parents to the virus. The girl’s sister was in neighboring Guinea, so she turned to the sister’s boyfriend in Monrovia for help.
Ms. Fahnbulleh recalled how she tried to explain to him that the girl was the safest person he would meet because she had survived the virus. Neighbors who had crowded around to listen to their conversation were soon rushing their children indoors. The boyfriend refused to take the girl in. He recommended the girl’s older brother living on the other side of Monrovia.
The brother, who was in his 30s with children of his own, was skeptical, too. But Ms. Fahnbulleh told him that if he contracted Ebola, his younger sister would be able to care for him and take him to a hospital without getting sick. “Is that true?” he asked.
The girl agreed to stay. “I guess she was happy to have a home,” Ms. Fahnbulleh says..
Tragically, orphanages are again a growth industry in Liberia.
In the aftermath of civil war in the country between 1989 and 2003, which was broken only by a two-year lull, the government and international organizations worked to resettle many children orphaned by the violence.
With their success in finding homes, the number of orphanages in the country fell from nearly 120 after the war to just over 80 today, according to Liberia’s Ministry of Health.
After the last war orphans left her facility in 2011, Ms. Dunoh transformed it into a day-care center and home for her own 11 children. Now she and the remaining orphanages are preparing to handle the survivors of Ebola’s onslaught.
Esther Tokpah and Gonda Gibson, both 10 years old, were brought here from Nimba County, a five-hour drive to the east, near the border with Ivory Coast and Guinea, where the Ebola outbreak began late last year.
In August, Ebola killed both of Gonda’s parents and Esther’s father. Esther and Gonda only realized at Ms. Dunoh’s orphanage that Esther’s father had contracted the disease at the funeral for Gonda’s deceased mother. Esther hasn’t had a relationship with her mother for years.
Ms. Dunoh has found an aunt of Gonda’s who has agreed to raise him. She hasn’t yet found a home for Esther.
Write to Patrick McGroarty at firstname.lastname@example.org