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Africans in ND raise awareness, collect donations to combat Ebola

FARGO - These days are filled with worry for J Saywala Kennedy. "I don't eat and feel satisfied," he said. "I don't go to bed and sleep well." The Ebola outbreak in Kennedy's homeland of Liberia has left him constantly wondering what news the nex...

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Loseni Bility, from left, Reginald Tarr and Alexander Azenkeng sit in the office of Liberian Community President George Massaquoi while discussing what members of the United African Community and the rest of Grand Forks can do to support family members and others in Liberia during the current Ebola outbreak. Kile Brewer / Forum News Service

FARGO – These days are filled with worry for J Saywala Kennedy.

“I don’t eat and feel satisfied,” he said. “I don’t go to bed and sleep well.”
The Ebola outbreak in Kennedy’s homeland of Liberia has left him constantly wondering what news the next phone call or text message will bring.
“People who you know – that you sat with, you eat with – the next minute the person is down with Ebola,” said the 35-year-old, who’s lived in Fargo since March.
In mid-August, Kennedy learned that his 27-year-old cousin had died from Ebola after contracting it while she was working as a nurse in a hospital.
Kennedy is one of several North Dakotans whose families and friends in Africa have been affected by the deadly virus. He and others have been working to raise awareness about Ebola, including holding a rally in downtown Fargo on Aug. 8. They’ve also been collecting donations of medical supplies to help fight the outbreak.
“Right now, it’s an alarming situation in our country,” Kennedy said. “It’s going to keep setting the country backwards.”
Spreading facts
Since the outbreak began in March, the virus is reported to have infected 3,069 people and is suspected to have killed 1,552, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Liberia, where the disease is suspected of killing 694, has been one of the hardest hit. Other hard-hit countries include Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
“It’s so disruptive,” said Alexander Azenkeng, who is from Cameroon and is president of the United African Community in Grand Forks. “Family members are so scared something is going to happen. Just that fear element is traumatizing, even if you are well.”
Gathered in the UAC office in Grand Forks, former and past presidents of the organization talked about actions they are taking to combat the epidemic from thousands of miles away.
One of the group’s priorities is helping to educate Africans back home about the nature of the disease.
George Massaquoi, who moved to Grand Forks from Liberia six years ago and is the president of the Grand Forks Liberian Community, said he tries to emphasize how Ebola is spread.
Ebola can only be contracted through contact with bodily fluids, which makes it easier to contain than an airborne virus.
Massaquoi said this is important knowledge because many African cultural practices, such as hand-washing the bodies of the dead and caring for one’s own sick, involve bodily contact and have perhaps exacerbated the spread of Ebola.
But the high level of contagiousness and deadliness of Ebola is not the only problem.
“Ebola is a very difficult disease to deal with,” said Reginald Tarr, a former UAC president who moved to Grand Forks from Liberia 11 years ago.
Ebola is only contagious when an infected person has a fever, but it can take up to 21 days for a fever to develop. By that time, a person might not associate the fever with Ebola, and therefore might not limit contact with others. The virus is estimated to be fatal in more than 50 percent of all cases.
Taking action
“We can all talk all we want about Ebola, but what are we going to do about it?” Tarr asked. “We are all impacted every day.”
Along with educating people on how to prevent the spread of Ebola, the UAC is sending food, supplies and money back to Liberia.
When Massaquoi heard that his brother back home was sick, he sent extra money so he could go to the hospital. Luckily, he didn’t have Ebola and seems to have recovered.
Gabriel Merchant, who is also from Liberia, pulled out a handwritten list of things the UAC is trying to collect to send to Liberia: latex gloves, hand sanitizer, intravenous fluids, rehydration salts and other medical supplies that can help those caring for patients with Ebola.
Loseni Bility said they are also trying to gather food to send because the price of rice has doubled or tripled since the outbreak, especially since neighboring countries are limiting traffic into and out of Liberia to help contain the virus.
Stretched thin
Bility, 28, moved to Grand Forks 10 years ago. He last visited his hometown of Barkedu, Liberia, in September 2013. When he said his goodbyes and returned to the U.S., he didn’t think it would be the last time he would see 10 of his family members.
This July, Bility received a phone call from a relative and learned that the Ebola outbreak had spread to Barkedu where 20 people quickly contracted the virus. “Everybody was panicking in the town because of how everyone was dying,” he said.
In a town as small as Barkedu, facilities for treating the sick are overwhelmed by Ebola.
“I went there last year and took photos of the little clinic. It’s just the size of this room,” Bility said, spreading his arms to indicate the two-desk UAC office around him.
The combination of scarce resources and the rampant Ebola epidemic has the UAC doing all it can to send supplies to friends, family and fellow Liberians battling the outbreak.
“Every single piece of help is needed,” Massaquoi said.
To donate medical supplies for the fight against Ebola, call Kennedy in Fargo at 612-423-0246.

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