Finding Homes for Ebola's Orphans

In West Africa, agencies try to find family, friends to care for children who lost parents.

This is the third in a four-part series that examines West Africa's Ebola crisis.
Read the first part here and the second part here.

For two weeks in September, Harris Wureh, 17, and Mercy Kennedy, 9, tended to their mother as her condition deteriorated. Marie Wureh, a widow who traded goods at the local market, became infected with Ebola while she cared for a woman who had fallen ill.

The siblings, quarantined in their two-room, concrete-block shanty in Monrovia, Liberia, fed their mother food that neighbors left outside and tried to keep her clean. As her suffering increased, Wureh made her son repeat his promise that he would become a computer programmer and would ensure Mercy got an education too.

On October 1, the children and their mother rode in the same ambulance to an Ebola treatment unit in another part of Liberia's capital city. Wureh died there the next day.

The children were sent to an interim care center to wait out the incubation period for Ebola. When he arrived, Harris "was in a state of shock, confusion, fear, and hopelessness," said UNICEF child protection officer Miatta Abdulai-Clark. She asked him what he needed, and he said: "Big Sister, right now, I don't know what will happen to my sister and I after the 21 days [of quarantine]," Abdulai-Clark recalled. "We don't have anywhere to go and no one to turn to. What will we do?"

Abdulai-Clark said she pretended she'd gotten dirt in her eye and turned her back on Harris, so he would not notice her wipe away her tears. She promised to find them a place to stay.

Ebola has sickened more than 22,092 and killed more than 8,810 in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea since December 2013. About one-fifth of Ebola's victims have been children. But the disease also has exacted an enormous toll on thousands of children who survived but could be haunted by the losses they suffered and the human misery they witnessed.

More than 11,000 children have lost one or both parents to the disease. International aid agencies, such as UNICEF and Save the Children, along with government officials and local organizations in the three countries, have faced a daunting task in trying to help them and thousands of other children affected by the disease.

Those orphaned by Ebola will be psychologically scarred, said Carolyn Miles, CEO of Save the Children, an international nonprofit organization. Many watched their parents die in front of them; they suffered from the disease themselves, or worried they would; and they were often shunned by their own communities when they tried to return home.

Ebola also has hurt children who were not orphaned or infected. Schools are just opening back up in Guinea and Liberia, and schools in Sierra Leone are scheduled to open in March. The health care system in West Africa—barely functional when Ebola hit—has collapsed. And food could become scarce because farmers abandoned their crops during the outbreak.

"Every child in this country, it seems, has seen guys who are known as Ebola ninjas spraying down houses, bedrooms, taking people away. All that has an impact on children," said Sheldon Yett, UNICEF's top official in Liberia. "It will have an impact for years to come."

A Temporary Stay

Many Ebola orphans in West Africa are sent to local care centers, which provide interim housing during the disease's three-week incubation period. Harris and Mercy spent 21 days in the temporary shelter. They had been in constant and close contact with their mother during her illness, but neither developed Ebola.

When the quarantine period ends, the shelters try to find homes for the children. The first choice is always a relative. "The best place for a child is always with a family," Yett said. "We don't want to see kids in orphanages."

Often, family members are happy to welcome a grandchild, younger sibling, niece, nephew, or cousin into their home. Others are terrified that the children carry Ebola, even after authorities have cleared them. But with time, relatives usually lose their fear and accept the children.

Then there are children like Harris and Mercy, who have no living relatives.

At the height of Liberia's epidemic in October, there were more than 40 Ebola orphans in need of a home at the Kerlekula Interim Care Center in Monrovia, where Abdulai-Clark works, she said. But the rate of new infections has fallen across much of the region since early November, and so has the number of orphans.

Finding New Homes

In most cases, relatives have been willing to take in children with no promise of support. But money is obviously a crucial issue—it's expensive to feed, clothe, and educate a child. Abdulai-Clark said a few families have been given money, household items, and health and mental health services by aid agencies and their country's ministry of health.

"Anywhere people have a little bit of support, suddenly they're ready to take the risk" of taking on someone else's child, said Elizabeth Drevlow, a child protection officer with the nonprofit service organization GOAL, in Freetown, Sierra Leone's capital.

Especially with younger children, however, it can be hard to tell family members from imposters. There are rumors of people who turn up at Ebola treatment units to claim orphaned boys and girls so they can exploit them. Drevlow hasn't seen any such cases herself, but she said she doesn't doubt it's happening. Because of the strain the Ebola crisis placed on West African communities, she said, "the worst are getting worse."

There's so little formal government infrastructure left in Sierra Leone, Drevlow said, that tracking down the facts about a child's relatives can be tough. "So much information is so convoluted; everyone can tell you a different story. There are no birth certificates, no home addresses, no IDs, so it's so difficult to know which story is correct."

Drevlow said her organization tries to check on the children it places in homes to make sure they are safe and being treated well. "If we still see the kids in those homes a couple of months later, and they seem to be doing well, that's success for us."

She's been impressed, Drevlow said, that so many families have opened their homes to these orphans. "We haven't yet found kids who just could not be taken back to communities."

Optimistic About the Future

Harris's and Mercy's luck turned when social worker Stephen Jared tracked down Martu Weefor, a former neighbor, who was thrilled to hear that the children were still alive. Two of Weefor's three children are the same ages as Harris and Mercy and had been friends with them before the Ebola outbreak. She immediately agreed to take the siblings in.

Parenting is hard work, Weefor admitted in a recent phone interview, but she said Harris and Mercy already feel like part of her family. Accepting them as foster children "wasn't something strange," Weefor said, because her family already knew them so well. "Maybe it was destiny or something that was supposed to happen. We just thank God that they are alive."

Weefor is confident that Marie Wureh would have done the same for her. "She was a nice woman," she said.

With a television blaring in the background, Harris said over the phone that he and his sister were doing fine at Weefor's house. They're bored without school, but have filled the time with watching TV, reading books, drawing pictures, and playing with the neighborhood children.

With the infection rate in Monrovia subsiding, Harris said his fear of Ebola has diminished.

"Ebola was tough," he said. "But now Ebola is not too much."

Pete Muller contributed to this report.

Follow Karen Weintraub on Twitter.

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