Decontee Sawyer thumbed through a worn photo album recently at her Coon Rapids duplex. She stopped at a photo of her husband, Patrick, hugging her pregnant belly.
“He was so ready to be a father — it was the happiest I ever saw him, being a daddy,” she said.
Now she is raising their three daughters without him. Last July, Patrick Sawyer, a Liberian government worker who traveled between Minnesota and West Africa, died of the deadly infectious disease Ebola.
He had been caring for his ailing sister in Liberia, assuming she had malaria (authorities later confirmed she had Ebola), before traveling to Nigeria for work. When he collapsed at the Lagos airport, he was quarantined. He died five days later.
Nigeria was to have been his last stop before returning home to his wife and daughters. Officials there said he infected several others after becoming the country’s first Ebola case and the first American to die of the disease.
In the year since, Decontee Sawyer, 35, had put away the photo album and other items that reminded her too painfully of Patrick, who would have been 41 on July 16. “It’s hard,” she said.
The first cases of what would become the deadliest outbreak of Ebola on record emerged last March in several West African countries, including Liberia. Within months, it killed thousands, including family members and friends of Liberian-Americans in Minnesota, which is home to more than 30,000 people of Liberian descent. As of July, no new cases had been reported in Liberia, according to the World Health Organization, but the scourge left a grim aftermath.
For the large Liberian community that calls the northern Twin Cities suburbs home, it has been an emotionally challenging year. Grief over losing friends and relatives to Ebola and the stress of dealing with the stigma and fear attached to the disease have been profound. At the same time, the community faced an unrelated tragedy — the disappearance and death of 10-year-old Liberian immigrant Barway Collins of Crystal and subsequent murder charges against his father.
“All of this has turned the Liberian people upside down, but all you can do is pray,” said Marie Vah, who participated in a worship service last weekend to celebrate her native country’s Independence Day.
Vah joined a handful of pastors who led prayers and songs at Cross of Glory Lutheran Church in Brooklyn Center last Sunday. As children were hushed in hallways, prayers were offered for the eradication of Ebola in West Africa and to give thanks, despite all the losses, for the past year.
“You can see how many people were affected in the faces of those praying,” said Pastor P. Gabriel Sieh Sr., who is visiting from Liberia.
A twice-sorrowful memorial
Sawyer’s last 12 months have been difficult.
“A whole day would pass and I wouldn’t eat a bite that day,” she said. “I couldn’t sleep, because I had this massive headache for two months because I was processing and trying to understand.”
Now life is edging back to normal, until she is reminded that her husband is no longer in the picture.
The two came to the United States separately (she in 1991 and he in the 2000s), became citizens and were married in 2008. They had three daughters. Patrick had been shuttling back and forth from Liberia to help with the country’s reconstruction after its civil war.
“Every time I’m in the Liberian community, I’m ‘Patrick Sawyer’s wife who lost her husband … she’s the one who lost her husband to Ebola,’ ” Sawyer said. “It’s never-ending. It brings me back to that grieving period.”
She described a recent moment when her 6-year-old daughter Ava was asking who a playmate was on the phone with.
“And when we said, ‘That’s her daddy on the phone,’ Ava looked at me and said, ‘She has a daddy?’ ” Sawyer said. “You hear it in her voice that she misses that and is in awe of that. Someone having a daddy is a big thing for her, and it shouldn’t be. Those are the moments that get me still.”
Patrick was supposed to return in time to celebrate the birthdays of two of his daughters and for a memorial service for the sister he had cared for in Liberia.
“That’s the sad part, is that we did do the memorial service, but it was for both him and his sister,” she said. “It’s really hard and bizarre.”
Fear, but also discussion
Last summer, when there seemed to be no end in sight, Kellita Whisnant took black tape and covered the word “African” in the sign for MaMa Ti’s African Kitchen, her restaurant in Brooklyn Park.
“A lot of frequent customers stopped coming in,” Whisnant said. “People were asking, ‘Do you have Ebola?’ ”
She attended several community meetings designed to educate people about the disease so she could answer her customers’ questions. But after losing about 50 percent of her customer base after the Ebola epidemic hit the headlines, the mother of four sold her 3-year-old business in February.
“Ebola affected our business, but it also opened doors for discussion, and the community definitely got more educated,” she said.
Whisnant, 35, returned to a previous health care job in Golden Valley, and has a home business in the travel industry. The new owners of MaMa Ti’s African Kitchen kept the name and say they are doing financially well.
‘They can survive this’
What was once an important crusade for Sawyer, obtaining her husband’s death certificate and remains, became one more thing she’s had to let go of.
“I gave up, because for me it got to the point where I didn’t trust anything,” Sawyer said. “I got skeptical. It was hard. He wasn’t treated with dignity and humanity. When you’re sick, you should ever more so be treated with respect.”
She recently quit her part-time job working at a St. Cloud center for sexual assault survivors to spend more time with daughters Ava, 5-year-old Mia and 2-year-old Bella. After Patrick’s death, she started the Kofa Foundation, which helps families who have lost loved ones to infectious diseases become “thrivers.” That’s important to her now, helping others move on.
“This whole thing has brought [me and my daughters] that much closer, because we have to be,” Sawyer said. “I want [my daughters] to know that their father loved them. … I want this virus to be over. It isolates people. … When I think of that, I think of Patrick, what it must have been like to be isolated on those last days with no one around.”
Abdullah Kiatamba, who headed the Minnesota African Task Force Against Ebola, said that the epidemic’s effects on the Liberian community will linger for a while.
Community leaders have planned fundraisers for children in Liberia who lost their parents, a post-Ebola summit to reflect on the community’s effort, and festive gatherings to buoy the community.
“These tragedies have a way of staying longer than you want them to,” Kiatamba said. “They have survived a lot of things in Africa; they can survive this.”