“Just keep safe. I’ll get you home.”
That’s how 30-year-old Jacob Mayson of Ramsey ends every tearful long-distance call with his fiancée, Bernice Sulomna, and their two young sons, U.S. citizens stranded in Liberia since July.
After he hangs up, Mayson, who works nights to keep his family afloat, is not sure how he can fulfill that promise, he admits.
In an unexpected twist that turned a much-anticipated family trip into a nightmare, the Ebola epidemic in Africa has torn apart the Anoka County family. A cascade of canceled flights and chaos amid the Ebola outbreak would create an expensive hassle for even well-heeled travelers, but for this working-class family living paycheck to paycheck, it’s catastrophic. It would cost $3,700 to get the three home on the airline routes that do still remain open, a monumental amount to the Maysons.
“I am very, very worried. I am not sleeping. … This is worse than the war,” he said, referring to the Liberian civil war he and his wife survived before they became Americans.
The family’s situation is unusual, said Abdullah Kiatamba, executive director of the nonprofit African Immigrant Services, based in Brooklyn Park. “We do know about people being stranded a week or two weeks, but a whole family being stranded is a new reality,” he said.
The Twin Cities’ northern suburbs are home to more than 30,000 people of Liberian descent, the largest concentration outside of Africa.
The Mayson family’s situation “speaks to an emerging problem,” said Kiatamba, who learned of it from the Star Tribune. “It happens, but it’s underreported. They are trying to handle it in their own ways.” He’s now reaching out to local aid and community groups to see if they can help the families.
Mayson himself hasn’t spoken to many people about his family’s situation.
“People are afraid to talk. No one wants to be stereotyped,” he said this week, sitting in his unusually quiet living room, his 2-year-old son’s teddy bear still on the couch.
A teacher who has known the family for years has started a public campaign to bring his family home. “They are an absolutely wonderful family, very concerned and wanting the best for their children,” said Jeanne Walthour, an Anoka-Hennepin School District family education home visitor and teacher. “They are really very good people. He is such a good, patriotic American.”
Walthour has urged him to speak publicly even though, she said, “I am sure there are readers out there who would say, ‘Leave them there.’
“How far do we have to go back before we are all from immigrants?” Walthour asked.
Trip was ‘really big deal’
The trip to Monrovia was originally supposed to be a triumph — proof of their success and of how far they had come.
Mayson and Sulomna, both naturalized American citizens, saved for two years for her trip to Liberia. She had not been back to her place of birth in 13 years.
“Bernice hasn’t seen her mother in years, and her mother had never seen the children before. This was a really big deal,” Walthour said. “My big concern was she was on a 30-hour plane trip and she has a toddler and a second-grader and is doing it on her own. Nobody to my knowledge was talking much about Ebola in July.”
Mayson said the trip cost more than $8,000. The family shipped two barrels of food, water and supplies to Monrovia ahead of their departure. Mayson wanted to go too, but could not afford to take time off from his job. So he reluctantly watched Sulomna, 8-year-old Jacob Jr. and then-1-year-old Benzel board a flight.
Within days of their July arrival in Liberia, the Ebola outbreak grew from an isolated outbreak to an international crisis. All of the family’s supplies got stuck in the Port of Monrovia, forcing Sulomna to buy new ones.
Then their return flight on Nigeria-based Arik Airlines was indefinitely canceled.
Arik Airlines, the largest commercial carrier in West Africa, canceled all flights to and from Liberia and Sierra Leone after Liberian-American Patrick Sawyer traveled to the Nigerian capital of Lagos on a flight and died of Ebola days later, infecting others. An Arik Airlines representative in New York said Friday that there are still no flights from Lagos to Liberia.
An airline representative told Mayson that if his fiancée and children could drive to a neighboring country, they might be able to catch a flight back to the United States. But “it is very dangerous,” Mayson said of that scenario. “I can’t risk them in that situation.”
At this point, the only way out is on an Air Brussels flight at a cost of $3,700.
‘It’s scary and it’s hard’
Mayson earned his degree in accounting from the University of St. Thomas, but was unable to find a job in his field. He works overnights at an adult group home, trying to earn as much overtime as he can, and is training to be a seasonal tax preparer. He said that after he pays the Minnesota bills and sends money for food to his fiancée and children, there is not much left.
Mayson said he instructed Sulomna to go to the U.S. embassy and request a repatriation loan so she and the children can leave. She’s been denied twice.
“They kept telling her no and she started crying,” Mayson said. “She is struggling. It’s scary and it’s hard with two babies. She says to me, ‘Jacob, get me out of here.’ ”
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Secretary of State said she could not discuss specific details of a case but that consular officers can assist destitute U.S. citizens abroad by processing repatriation loans at its discretion “but is not required to provide a repatriation loan to an eligible U.S. citizen or accompanying family member(s).”
Mayson recently contacted the office of U.S. Sen. Al Franken. A spokesman there confirmed that the office is working on the family’s case.
For now, Sulomna and the children are staying at her mother’s house in Monrovia. Like Mayson, they have not given up hope that they will soon be able to return home to Minnesota.