By: Prince Collins
MONROVIA: More than 5,900 Liberian children lost one or both parents to Ebola. Some are with a surviving parent, others found loving homes with friends or relatives, but many have been left orphaned on the streets or are finding it tough to adapt to new lives with host families.
Sitting outside her former home, a now-abandoned house on the outskirts of the capital Monrovia,12-year-old Sarah recalled the day in August 2014 when she was discharged from an Ebola treatment centre. Her joy at having survived was quickly crushed when she was informed that both her parents had succumbed to the virus. An only child, she was now also an orphan.
After more than 4,800 deaths from the virus, Liberia was declared Ebola-free for the second time last month and is trying to move forward. Sarah, however, is still trying to find her place. Unable to track down any of her relatives, a local advocacy group assigned her to a host family.
“They brought me to live with these people, but I am not happy at all,” she told IRIN. “I am sitting here because my guardians, who are strangers to me, said if I come home they will beat me. Every little thing I do in the house gets them angry. I am really scared and I don’t know what to do.”
Sarah refused to identify her guardians but said that in addition to the beatings, they called her names and sometimes wouldn’t even give her food. She said she often comes back to her former home to sleep and escape the abuse.
“I am no longer in school. The people I live with send all their kids to school but do not send me. I cry every day, thinking about my parents. I really want to leave, but I don’t know where to go.”
Tony, a 14-year-old boy who is crazy about football, lost both his parents and two sisters to Ebola.
He now lives in an orphanage on Buchanan Highway in rural Liberia and said his “friends” call him the “Ebola orphan” and refuse to eat with him.
“This makes me sad,” he told IRIN. “Many times they shun me and call me names. Sometimes, I want to leave this place but then where do I go?” he asked. “I pray every night for God to help me through this. It is painful to live this kind of life.”
No support systems
While Sarah and Tony have been given some assistance, many orphans are left to fend for themselves.
Tete Kollie, a 16-year-old from the town of Tubmanburg who lost her father many years ago to an unknown illness, was left homeless after her mother died of Ebola last year.
“I now go on the street to beg just so I can eat,” she told IRIN. “My mother’s family members say I shouldn’t be around them anymore. They say my mother died from Ebola and so I shouldn’t come near them. Sometimes I sleep with hunger. No food to eat.”
Single parents widowed by Ebola are also struggling to care for children battling to adjust.
“My six-year-old daughter misses her mother still,” said Alex Blamo, who lives in the Monrovia township of West Point and lost his fiance to Ebola. “She has not been herself since her [mother’s] passing. Every time I come home, there is a new complaint Her friends do not want to play with her.”
Mother-of-three Dede Sirleaf told IRIN it was difficult to support her children after the loss of their father, the main breadwinner. “I have been [forced] to change my children’s school to a more affordable one,” she said.
More help needed
The Liberian government has partnered with UNICEF, Save the Children and Plan Liberia to provide basic services to some Ebola orphans, including help with school fees, food distribution centres and counselling.
But the large number of orphans has made it difficult to follow up on individual cases. A lack of special programmes and the need for a government awareness campaign are common complaints.
Samuel Morris, who runs an Ebola orphanage in Monrovia, told IRIN they were doing the best they can despite the many challenges.
“Right now we are catering to seven dozen orphans who lost relatives due to Ebola,” he said. “We are just trusting God for someone to come to our aid. We have to ensure these kids are in school.”