16 Oct 2014

‘God, why take my father and mother?’ – Ebola orphans

There are so many of them they now have a label: Ebola orphans. Here is the story of eight brothers and sisters who lost both parents, a sibling, and were shunned by terrified family and friends.

After their father and mother died from Ebola, the nine children under 18 years old in the Kollie family were being looked after by the two eldest sisters.

One of the siblings then died, while the elder sisters caught Ebola themselves and were admitted to hospital, along with five other relatives. The remaining six children under 12, were left to fend almost completely for themselves at home in Paynesville, Liberia.

“The entire community deserted them,” said Michael John Bull, director of the charity Street Child‘s Liberia branch. “They were not allowed to get fire or water – Street Child had to provide all of that. We even hired someone from community to give them water, because no one wanted to be associated with them.”

The latest Unicef figures put the number of children who have lost one or both parents to Ebola, at 4,000 across west Africa. However the actual figure may be much higher because deaths have been difficult to record in some areas.

As the number of those infected with Ebola keeps rising, fear of catching the virus is growing, which puts children whose parents have died from Ebola in a very vulnerable position.

‘You can hardly see them smiling’

Unicef, Save the Children and Street Child have identified concerns about children being shunned by their communities and wider family. Those who have come into contact with Ebola are supposed to be quarantined for 21 days, and the children of those who died from the disease are considered too much of a risk.

Earlier this week, Mr Bull brought the six Kollie children to a refuge centre in Monrovia run by survivors of Ebola, who aren’t at risk of catching the virus. These centres provide everything from food, shelter and clothes, to much-needed emotional and psychological support.

But four-year-old Jeremmy (pictured top right) broke down in tears on arrival. “He was crying, asking why would his god take his father and his mother?,” said Mr Bull. “Myself and the centre coordinator started crying too, It was so sorrowful.

“The psychological effect is so strong. The children, you can hardly see them smiling. You can see the trauma as soon as you see them. You can sense it from the outlook, they’re being ignored by members of the community after they’ve just lost their parents.”

Staff at these centres try and meet this with “problem free talks”. “We try and engage them in something that will cause them to smile – ask them the music they love best, tell them a story.”

Video: “It’s a sad story really, so sad” – Douda Fallah from Kenema, Sierra Leone, lost his father, stepmother, brother, sister and grandmother in a matter of weeks.

An estimated 2.5 million children under the age of five live in areas affected by the Ebola outbreak, according to Save the Children.

As well as providing emotional and material support to Ebola orphans, the charity says that children are missing out on crucial vaccinations against polio and measles, because of prevention measures in place to stop the spread of Ebola.

“In the three worst-affected countries – Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea – health systems, only just recovering from decades of chronic under-investment, are close to collapse,” said a spokesperson.