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Canadians from west Africa face stigma here while they fear for family back home

In this Sept. 29, 2014 photo a Medecins Sans Frontieres nurse gets prepared with Personal Protection Equipment in Monrovia, Liberia.
Image Credit: AP Photo/Jerome Delay
October 26, 2014 - 2:26 PM

WINNIPEG - The Ebola virus may not have crossed Canada's border, but the epidemic sweeping parts of west Africa is taking a toll on many Canadians.

Those with parents, brothers, sisters and cousins in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea say they are living on the edge — filled with anxiety every time the phone rings and dealing with the stigma created by the disease.

Abu Bakarr Kamara, who immigrated from Sierra Leone in 2003 and lives in Winnipeg, said he often lets his phone go to voice mail when it rings for fear of hearing his father or sister have fallen ill.

"I listen to the voice mail before I call back," he said. "If I don't hear any terrible news on the voice mail, I say, 'Thank God.' That's our life right now.

"It's frustrating. It's terrible. It's terrifying. Sometimes you go to bed thinking about what horrible news you could get from back home. You just pray. It's really heartbreaking."

The World Health Organization estimates the disease has killed more than 4,900 people and infected about 10,000 — virtually all in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. A lack of beds in Ebola clinics is also forcing families to care for relatives at home, risking further spread of the virus, the WHO has said.

"The rate that people are getting infected in the capital city, it's all so heartbreaking," said Kamara, vice-president of the Sierra Leone Nationals Association of Manitoba. "It's like there is no hope, even though we try to hope for the best."

Groups across Canada are fundraising to help curb the spread of Ebola. In Winnipeg, Kamara's group is selling T-shirts and organizing a dinner with the goal of fundraising $50,000 for the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders by the end of the year.

In Edmonton, members of the Canadian Liberian Friendship Association are raising money to buy an ambulance for their homeland. President John Gaye said he and many others feel helpless.

Liberian-Canadians are also feeling the effects of the epidemic in their adopted country, he said. People back away suspiciously when they find out someone is originally from Liberia. Others cast suspicion with questions: when were you last there? Have you entertained any visitors recently?

"Just because a person is Liberian or from west Africa, that doesn't mean the person is carrying the Ebola virus," Gaye said. "I haven't been back home for a few years now. I cannot carry the virus with me wherever I go.

"It's our responsibility to educate the person that we're dealing with."

Abu Bakarr Kamara, a Toronto man from Sierra Leone who has the same name as the Winnipeg man but is not related, said his family back home faced a dilemma when his brother fell ill. No one wanted to take him to the hospital because, if he didn't have Ebola, he could catch it there.

"Thankfully, he was suffering from malaria," he said.

Canada's health-care system is better equipped to contain and deal with the virus, he added. Canadians need to direct their energy into fighting the deadly disease on African soil to ensure it doesn't ravage other countries around the world

"We live in a global world. People do travel; people do trade," he said. "It's better for these advanced countries to go to west Africa and stop this epidemic there rather than just sit here and wait to protect (Canada)."

News from © The Canadian Press, 2014
The Canadian Press

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