The Twin Cities Liberian community gathered Sunday for an emotional service to honor the victims of Ebola — airing fears and urging unity in confronting the West African epidemic.
The 200-plus people who gathered in Brooklyn Center’s Cross of Glory Lutheran Church cheered when the fiancée of Thomas Eric Duncan announced the end of her state-imposed quarantine in Dallas via Skype. Duncan was the first person to die of Ebola in the United States. The crowd applauded when the local Liberian Ministers Association unveiled a plan to rent houses for those flying in from West Africa, where they can undergo a 21-day voluntary quarantine.
Liberian community leaders organized the memorial service in honor of Duncan, a Liberian man who fell ill last month shortly after flying to Texas. Duncan’s diagnosis and death on Oct. 8 have shaken the Twin Cities Liberian community, the nation’s largest at about 30,000 people. At Sunday’s service, community members prayed, danced in the pews and voiced hope that the wider community will not blame and isolate them.
Pastor Harding Smith, one of the organizers, said recent news that two nurses who cared for Duncan have become infected has shocked the community and spurred renewed anxiety. This seemed like a good time to rally and once again separate “facts from fiction,” he said.
“People are asking a lot of questions that we as community leaders cannot answer,” Smith said. “We don’t want to be alarmist, but we need answers to quell a lot of the fears we have.”
A sister of Duncan attended the event. Citing a backlash against Duncan’s family in Texas, organizers would only say the sister has ties to Minnesota and was not subject to the state-mandated quarantines of other family members.
The Sunday event started with a question-and-answer session with Dr. Pamela Talley of the Minnesota Department of Health, who called Duncan’s death “an unfortunate wake-up call” for the country’s health care community.
“We keep our awareness high, and we are prepared,” Talley assured those gathered at the church.
Local Liberian expats told of losing family members to the disease in West Africa and finding solace in their faith. Wearing a black suit, Gerald Dixon, who said he lost 17 relatives in Liberia, sang “It’s Not an Easy Road,” joined by the crowd.
Smith spoke with Duncan’s fiancée, Louise Troh, via Skype, after telling the audience she has been blamed by some close to her for bringing “this mess” to the United States. “Shame on them!” a woman cried from the pews.
The audience sprang to its feet and cheered loudly when Troh, looking haggard, announced earlier that day she was declared officially Ebola-free and off quarantine.
“I believe I have survived this,” she said. “With praise for the Lord, I am here.”
Pastor Alexander Collins, the executive director of the Liberian Ministers Association, spoke of a new plan to establish “community quarantine houses,” where those flying in from West Africa can choose to spend 21 days, the length of Ebola’s incubation period. The association is also setting up a hot line for West Africans who feel they have been stigmatized or treated unfairly.
“We are not the source,” Collins said. “We are the victim.”
Since Duncan’s diagnosis, leaders have ramped up efforts to dissuade fellow Liberians from traveling to West Africa and to reach out to the wider community, which they worry might rush to stigmatize and discriminate against West African expats.
The Minnesota Task Force Against Ebola is hosting two upcoming informational forums: one with Minnesota Department of Health officials at 6 p.m. Saturday at Hennepin County Community College, and another in November with the Department of Justice, about preventing a local backlash against West African expats. The task force is also recruiting health care professionals to volunteer in the fight against Ebola in West Africa.
“We are all deeply concerned,” said Clarence Yaskey of the task force. “We don’t want a single case to appear here in Minnesota.”