Berlinda watched her mother die. The three-year-old may not have understood what exactly was going on as the ambulance team transported her and her grievously ill mother to Redemption Hospital, one of Monrovia’s dedicated Ebola treatment centers, but at least she knew she was with the one person who loved her more than anything else in the world.
By the time the ambulance arrived at the clinic in Liberia’s capital city on September 15, her mother had slipped into silence, then death. Berlinda, dressed in a pink plaid shirt and ruffled shorts, emerged from the ambulance wide eyed and scared. There was no one there to receive her, just a phalanx of faceless health care workers covered head-to-toe in white biohazard suits. She too was a potential Ebola patient, so no one could risk picking her up for a comforting hug. Instead she was escorted into the center, given a bed and left for observation. A day later her Ebola test came out negative, but there was no one to celebrate, no one to take her home. Her father unknown and her mother dead; she had nowhere to go.
In a crisis as overwhelming as the Ebola outbreak in west Africa, it is easy to forget that behind each daily death toll there are people left to live with unimaginable loss. For children who lose their parents to sickness or death, the results can be devastating. The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that around 3,700 children have lost at least one parent in an outbreak that has devastated Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea. Those numbers are likely to double by mid-October. Sometimes relatives can be rounded up to take in the child, but with fears of contagion so strong, Ebola’s stigma is starting to eclipse even close blood ties.
“Thousands of children are living through the deaths of their mother, father or family members from Ebola,” said Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF’s Regional Director for West & Central Africa. “These children urgently need special attention and support; yet many of them feel unwanted and even abandoned.”
Berlinda was one of the lucky ones. As she peered through the ambulance doors before entering the clinic, she caught the attention of Katie Meyler, the American founder of a Monrovia-based education charity who was at the clinic checking in on one of her Ebola-assistance programs. Meyler snapped a few photos for Instagram (she initially thought her name was Pearlina, until she saw the girl’s paperwork a few days later). In the months before Ebola struck Liberia, Meyler’s charity, More Than Me, had been in the process of setting up a beachside guesthouse designed to earn an income for the organization, which provides schooling for vulnerable Liberian girls. Those plans had been put on hold, but when Meyler saw Berlinda she realized that she had the resources and the housing to be able to do something. “I told the doctors that I could take care of her until they figured out how to find her family,” says Meyler. Two days later, Berlinda was out of the clinic and in a clean, welcoming home full of new toys, staffed with a nurse and a former teacher, and Meyler had a new project on her hands.
For Meyler, whose decade-long, seat-of-the-pants approach to running an NGO in Liberia can be best defined as “give love and the rest will follow,” such a rapid change in objective came easy. (A few weeks ago she brought $500 worth of toys, candy and ice cream to pass out to patients in a treatment center. She admits that giving lollypops to a person afflicted with Ebola may not be sound medical practice, but “if someone is dying, it can’t be bad to bring them some joy.”)
That kind of aid in Liberia has raised eyebrows among the more traditional international NGOs, who prefer to strengthen local institutions instead of providing alternatives. But in the case of Ebola’s orphans, the need has simply become overwhelming. Ebola can take up to 21 days between exposure to the virus and the development of symptoms, so anyone who has been in direct contact with a patient must be treated as potentially contagious throughout a three-week quarantine. Few are willing to take in children under those conditions.
“The best place for those children to be quarantined is with family members,” says Amy Richmond, a child protection officer in Liberia for the Save the Children NGO. “But fear and stigma around Ebola is a growing phenomenon here, and relatives are scared to take these kids in.”
Even without the need for quarantine, Ebola’s stigma lingers. Three weeks ago, ten-year-old Esther and her family were admitted to a clinic for treatment. She survived, but her parents and her brother did not. Even though she is now immune from Ebola and cannot pass on the virus, distant relatives refused to take her.
“There was this big celebration for all the survivors at the clinic,” recalls Meyler. “Everyone was laughing and praying, but she was bawling her eyes out,” because she had nowhere to go.
That’s where Meyler’s guesthouse-turned-temporary-orphanage comes in. The cheerful blue and yellow building, dubbed HOPE House (Housing, Observation and Pediatric Evaluation), is now home to four children, including Esther and Berlinda. Once Meyler gets the appropriate registration through the government, she plans to welcome up to some 70 more. All of the city’s Ebola treatment centers are already calling, she says. “Everyone is telling me they have kids . . . I can tell you that as soon as we open our doors, it is going to be flooded.”
HOPE House isn’t limited just to orphans. The parents of the two other residents, 3-year-old twins Praise and Praises, are still alive, undergoing treatment for Ebola at Monrovia’s MSF-run isolation center. The twins’ grandmother, Marthalyne Freeman, would gladly take them in, but she works 12-hour shifts as an Ebola nurse. Letting them stay with their parents in the center, she says, is out of the question.
“The children get infected or they get traumatized because their parents can’t take care of them,” says Freeman. She has been working as a nurse since the start of the ongoing Ebola outbreak, she says, and she has seen a lot difficult cases. “Children are being abandoned, and when they are discharged there is no place to keep them. And I don’t think the government has any plans for that right now. The situation in Liberia is very hard.” It is. But for at least some children separated from their parents, things are about to get slightly less hard.