Ebola's Ripples Still Being Felt By Sierra Leone's Orphans

05/26/16

The fishing communities of Freetown, Sierra Leone, are tightly knit. Tiny homes of cement, mud, and tin are crammed together on the coast and families live almost on top of one another, lending support and friendship in this hard and often dangerous profession. 

 
          Men fish from small wooden boats with sputtering outboard engines, making their trade a dangerous one. 
 
But when the Ebola virus hit Sierra Leone, this warm and natural support network became their deadly downfall. Fishermen contracted the virus on their travels, and when they returned from sea the communities would gather to share their concern and care for them. As their friends and families cared for and touched the sick, the virus spread, wiping out entire families and leaving thousands of orphans throughout the country. 
 
It was in one of these little fishing villages that nine-year-old Miriam lived with her six-year-old twin brothers, Musa and Momodu*.  They weren’t the only children in their small home—their father supported six older kids on the meager living he made from fishing. There was never quite enough for everyone, but their parents worked hard to provide for them. 
 
When their father came home feeling sick one day, they thought it was just one of many common illnesses their family was accustomed to suffering—malaria or typhoid. By the time they realized it was Ebola, his wife had also caught the virus. Both parents quickly died, and the nine children were left to live with their aging grandparents. 
 
With their only source of income gone, the children’s situation went from bad to worse. It wasn’t long before tragedy struck the family again—their oldest sister died from a treatable illness, a victim of Sierra Leone’s overloaded healthcare system. 
 
It was through a partnering organization that Children of the Nations (COTN) staff found the children. All of them were sleeping on the floor of a tiny home, the family visibly in survival mode after the loss of their parents and sister. 
 
In the aftermath of the Ebola virus, hundreds of generous people had given donations to help COTN care for Sierra Leone’s orphans, both by supporting their surviving families and by establishing an orphan care center in Freetown. COTN prefers to help children stay with their own families whenever possible, so we initially offered to support the children in their home. The youngest three were enrolled in COTN’s school near Freetown and supported with school uniforms, supplies, and supplemental food. 
 
Like most new children, Miriam, Musa, and Momodu had trouble adjusting to life at school. They were suspicious of the other children and the twin boys were constantly fighting.
 
But COTN’s Ebola Orphan Care Center director, Rev. Magnus Beah, had some serious concerns as he watched the children behave. “The twin boys, when they had food, they ate it like they had never eaten food before,” he recalls. Magnus was also concerned about the lack of sanitation in their home, which was only getting more crowded—one of their older sisters already had a small baby and was pregnant again. And it was clear the twins were in need of parental care. “On the way to school the two boys would fight,” Magnus says. “Where they are coming from, if you are not a fighter, you cannot survive. They learned to fight others, fight each other, and fight for each other.” 
 
                 Even though they were given extra rations to take home, the children ate like they were starving. 
 
At Magnus’ recommendation, and in close consultation with Sierra Leonean social services and the children’s grandparents, the decision was made to take Miriam, Musa, and Momodu into COTN’s new Ebola Orphan Care Center. “They needed protection and they needed accommodations,” Magnus explains. “They needed a home to grow up in, a home to know the Lord.”
 
The children didn’t quite know what to make of their new home. As they walked into their rooms they lay down on the beds and rolled over again and again. They had never slept on a bed before. At first the three siblings were suspicious of the other children at the home. They were so used to fighting for everything, they were convinced the other children were going to beat them. 
 
“They have now begun to realize that fighting is not part of the game here,” Magnus smiles. The children have also had the example of older COTN children, former orphans of war who came to Freetown from COTN’s Children’s Homes in rural Banta to help care for and welcome the new children. 
 
An older student from COTN’s Children’s Homes helps a child from the Ebola Orphan Care Center get ready for school. 
 
It wasn’t long before little Miriam became a role model herself. As more Ebola orphans come into the center, Miriam is there to welcome and serve them. “She is somebody that will look at whatever is happening around and when she sees there is a need for someone to step in and lead, she moves in that direction,” Magnus says. 
 
Miriam is now preparing to complete primary school and begin secondary school—something she would have never imagined just a year ago when lack of money had forced her to drop out of school. “She is ambitious,” Magnus says, smiling. 
 
“I want to be a bank manager,” Miriam explains, “because I want to build a house for my family. After that I can build my own. Since my parents aren’t around, I want my family to enjoy my money!” 
 
Magnus shakes his head and smiles with a look of pride on his face. “Always thinking of others,” he says, almost to himself. “It takes a child to think that way.”
 
*These children’s names have been changed to protect their identity