This article was previously published on Ebola Deeply.
By Cinnatus Dumbaya
Until a few months ago, Haja Umu was part of a close family of 11. But she lost most of her close family members–parents, siblings and her own baby–to Ebola. Stricken by grief, she channeled her pain into helping others.
“I was in Kono with my aunt and parents, where my aunt was selling fish,” Umu told Ebola Deeply. “One day my aunt came back home with a high fever. She died days later and my parents and I attended the funeral. We caught the sickness there and we were later brought to Magburaka Town, where my parents and other relatives died.”
Umu was treated at the Hastings Ebola Treatment Center, a government-run facility in Freetown with a high survival rate. But after she recovered and was discharged, she realized she had nowhere to go.
”I was so discouraged after the death of my parents,” she said. “After I was discharged, I had no one to take care of me or take me back home. My only sister did not want to take me back home because she was afraid of contracting the virus through me.” Fortunately for Umu, she was taken in by the St. George Foundation Interim Care Center for Ebola orphans.
At the center, she decided to volunteer at the isolation unit to provide care for children waiting for Ebola test results.
“When the children are brought here we don’t know their status so I help look after them for 21 days before they can join the rest of the kids here,” Umu said. “I help them with washing; I provide food for them and take care of them generally. I do this because the staff at the orphanage are afraid to interact much with these kids because they don’t know their status. I know I can’t get Ebola again so I encourage these kids because I know how it feels to lose parents to this bad sickness. I encourage them until they get back to their normal status.”
The St. George Foundation was founded in 2004 out of the growing need to provide care for children orphaned during Sierra Leone’s civil war. As a result of the growing calls to provide care for Ebola orphans, the center has been transformed into an Interim Care Center for Ebola orphans.
Justina Conteh is its founder and director.
“The government and Ebola treatment centers keep referring children to us, so we don’t have an option but to take them in even though we were not prepared for it. It’s really challenging because most of these kids come here traumatized as a result of Ebola,” Conteh said.
One of the challenges of providing care for children awaiting test results is that staff could put themselves at risk of contracting the virus.
“One child was referred to us here, and after two tests she proved negative but started showing symptoms of Ebola days later. When we sent her to be tested again, she came up positive. We all had to go into quarantine for about a month, and that affected our work so much,” Conteh added.
That experience prompted Conteh to set up an isolation unit to house children whose statuses are unknown, staffed by Ebola survivors who are likely immune to the virus. Haja Umu was among the first to volunteer there.
“I am moved that Haja took the initiative to help other people,” Conteh said. “It tells you that the Ebola ordeal has taught her to be there for others. So as an institution we are very proud of her.”
Most of the kids at the St. George’s Foundation Interim Ebola Care Center are depressed and traumatized after losing loved ones. Conteh said they are providing psychosocial support.
“Each and every member of staff here has been trained to provide psychosocial support to these kids. They are going through a lot: depression, stigma, and a whole host of other problems. These kids need their parents but they are dead and their relatives do not wish to take them. So we have to be with them,” she added.
Now that the rate of transmission is slowing in Sierra Leone, Haja Umu is looking forward to going back to school.
“I really like the work I am doing here because I am protecting others,” she said. “However, I am looking forward to the end of Ebola so that I can go back to school and see my friends.”
According to UNICEF, at least 3,700 children in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone have lost one or both parents to Ebola since the start of the outbreak in West Africa.
Cinnatus Dumbaya is a contributor to Ebola Deeply.
[Photo courtesy of European Commission DG Echo]