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Central Standard

Kansas City’s West Africans Fight Ebola In Their Home Countries And Stigma Here

Sylvia Maria Gross
Liberians worship at the Konobo language service at the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in Kansas City's historic northeast neighborhood.

Djenabou Balde has been calling her daughter in Guinea every day to plead with her not to leave the house.

“I always say, ‘Keep the kids in the house. Make sure they are clean. Do not go to any function.’” Balde says. “She can hear me maybe today and tomorrow, forget, so I keep on calling every day.”

Balde moved to Kansas City 10 years ago from Guinea, where the recent Ebola outbreak began. Members of her family are either in quarantine, or just staying home to be safe.

“It’s kind of getting to a point where it’s impacting many areas of their lives – health-wise, financial-wise, and [in] education because no school right now going on.”

Balde says she feels compelled to help, both financially and emotionally. She’s taken a second job in order to send money. She also ships things like gloves and bleach.

“It just breaks your heart, because one way or the other, you are involved, you have your roots there, you have most of your family there,” Balde says. “Here you are sitting, thinking of all the ways to do, you feel like you are helpless.”

But now, Balde has joined forces with other West African leaders in Kansas City to try and do something more.

The Committee Against the Spread of Ebola

As Ebola continues to spread in that region of Africa, a group of Guineans, Sierra Leoneans, Liberians and Nigerians in Kansas City have formed a group called the Committee Against the Spread of Ebola. Peteh Jalloh, president of the local Sierra Leone United Descendents Association, came up with the idea. He says the new group will fundraise on behalf of organizations like Doctors Without Borders and Heart-to-Heart International, which is based in Lenexa, Kan.

Jalloh, who is a registered nurse at North Kansas City Hospital, says the group hopes to educate people from the U.S. who are going to help in West Africa about the culture there. He says we in the United States are much better informed about the crisis than many in Africa. He wants to tell people in his home country that “Ebola is real.”

Liberians face stigma in Kansas City

The Kansas City area is home to some 3000 Liberians — much larger than the local Guinean or Sierra Leonean communities.

One meeting place for a particular part of that community is the Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer in Kansas City’s Historic Northeast neighborhood. The church offers a Saturday service in the Konobo language, a dialect particular to southeastern Liberia.

On a recent Saturday, some other members of the congregation join the Liberians in solidarity.

“We have come tonight as much as we can to share the pain,” says Pastor Brad Zerkel. “That’s what family does, right?”

Pastor Brad Zirkle’s words are translated by Shah Dea, a lay minister who is a member of the community.

Dea says Ebola has not arrived in the Konobo region yet. But he and his countrymen are afraid.

On Sundays, Dea sits on his couch and gets on the phone in a big conference call with people throughout the United States who are from his region, and local leaders back home in Grand Gedeh County.

“We call certain people … the chiefs, the medical personnel, the commissioner, all to come on the line with us and tell us what’s going on. That’s how we get information,” Dea says.

His community in Liberia may be safe for now, but Dea’s Kansas City community is starting to feel the stigma of Ebola.

At church, Cecelia Barlor testifies that some of her co-workers at a local school have told the children to stay away from her. Dea says kids are being mocked, too. And he says it makes no sense. Most of them have been in the U.S. for decades, and the disease only arrived in Liberia a few months ago.

“So they could not be any disease carriers,” Dea says. “We are all brothers and sisters before Christ.”

Even at the church that has welcomed them, Zerkel says some congregates have been afraid to share communion-ware with the Liberians.

Zerkel and Dea are fighting headlines, especially after a Liberian who came to Texas has spread the disease to two of the nurses who treated him. But Dea has a plea for Kansas Citians:

“Feel free to shake hands, to talk with me, to embrace me, or any other Liberians, because Ebola is not a Liberian sickness or virus that lives in Liberians,” Dea says.

As for Djenabou Balde of Guinea and Peteh Jalloh of Sierra Leone, they say they haven’t felt any stigma at all, just the support of American friends who want to help.

This story is part of a Central Standard series exploring how international communities in the Kansas City area are following and responding to crises in their home countries. We also checked in on local Syrian and Ukrainian communities, and had a conversation about what it means to have your head and heart in two different places.

Central Standard Ebola
Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.