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Ebola epidemic hits close to home for Minnesota's West African community

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Fomba Konjan
Fomba Konjan, photographed in his Minneapolis, Minn. apartment Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, said 17 family members have been killed by the Ebola virus in his native Liberian village.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Fomba Konjan's hands trembled Wednesday before he made the international call.

Twelve hours after his brother called from the Liberian capital of Monrovia, he wanted to find out more about the deadly toll Ebola had taken on his family. But Konjan, who lives in Minneapolis, could not clearly remember his brother's cell phone number.

The sudden and untimely deaths of more than a dozen of his family members to the deadly Ebola virus in Liberia had left him devastated.

"I am feeling some kind of pain in my heart because this kind of situation have not happened to me," he said. "I am feeling terrible. I don't even know what to do. I am so confused."

When the call went through, his brother rattled off the 17 names of the people who died, among them nieces and nephews. He read them one by one, like someone reading a roll call.

Fayiah Tumbey, Abie Tumbey, Sunah Tumbey, Oldmah Tumbey, Tamba Siafa, Ab Willie, Tayloy Mamo, Tamba Sammie, McCarthy Taylor, Beatrice Fomba, Emmanuel Jerry, Rebecca Bundor, Hawa Sammie, Fatu Kan, Fayiah Amarah, Tamba Amarah, John Taylor. All are dead.

"That one," a stunned Konjan said of Taylor, his nephew. "I did not even know about that."

The Ebola epidemic that is sweeping across West Africa has hit hard in Minnesota, which has one of the largest West African populations in the nation. Konjan, and Cynthia Kwennah of Brooklyn Center, both Liberians, have lost a combined 25 relatives to the epidemic.

The toll

In West Africa, more than 1,900 people have now died in the outbreak, said Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization, a United Nations agency.

"This Ebola epidemic is the largest, and most severe and most complex we have ever seen in the nearly 40-year history of this disease," she said Wednesday during a press conference in Washington, D.C.

As of last week, there have been 3,500 confirmed or probable cases in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia, Chan said.

Ebola is spread through direct contact with infected person's blood or body fluids. Health care workers not wearing appropriate protective equipment and family and friends are at the highest risk of contracting the virus, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Kwennah has lost eight relatives to the Ebloa virus.

Cynthia Kwennah
Cynthia Kwennah, photographed in her Brooklyn Center, Minn. home Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014, grieves for the eight family members who have been killed by the Ebola virus in Liberia.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

Her father, the first to contract the virus, died in June. The doctor did not tell the family the cause of death, Kwennah said. Within weeks, her mother and sister -- who had been taking care of her father -- niece, nephew, in-law and two cousins became ill. Within a month and half, all had died.

By the time the doctors diagnosed Ebola, she said, "the entire family had all been caught up in it."

A month ago, her niece had been admitted in a hospital after she showed symptoms of the Ebola. Kwennah said she is grateful to God that her niece is now part of the "miracle kids" who survived the Ebola virus.

"I try to put my hope and trust in God and depend him for strength during this period," Kwennah said while feeding her 1-year-old daughter.

An uncle who doctors originally pronounced dead also is still alive. He is recovering.

Responding to fear

Many of Kwennah's neighbors also are worried about relatives in their homeland.

Over the past several weeks, Brooklyn Park, home the nation's largest Liberian-American population outside of Liberia, has hosted a series of town hall meetings where medical experts have answered questions about Ebola after some in the community raised concerns.

"The virus has not made it to the United States naturally but the fear of it has, and the city of Brooklyn Park took our responsibility very seriously to respond to that fear," said Brooklyn Park Fire Chief Kenneth T. Prillaman, who also serves as emergency management director.

Ebola: Is it a threat to Minnesota?

Many in Minnesota's West African communities are traumatized by the news that the virus is killing so many in their homelands, said Abdullah Kiatamba, chairman of the Minnesota African Task Force Against Ebola. To ensure they are not stigmatized, the task force has organized an awareness and public education campaign on Ebola.

"People think Ebola is a plane ride away," Kiatamba said. "There are a lot of moments where people think that because people are travelling between Minnesota and Liberia, between Minnesota and Guinea and Sierra Leone, someone could bring Ebola to Minnesota and people started getting worried and concerned."

Minnesota Department of Health officials say they are aware of the potential for Minnesotans to travel to and from West Africa. Since the outbreak began, they have alerted Minnesota health care providers to be on the lookout for anyone with symptoms of the virus.

Travelers are considered to be at a low risk, but must practice careful hygiene and avoid contact with bodily fluids of sick people.

Barbara Olson, community relations director for Osseo District schools, said officials there are educating the staff and families about the Ebola virus "to ensure that students and adults who have connections to West Africa are not stigmatized."

"We pay attention to building strong relationships with students," Olson said, "and ensuring that all students have a safe and health learning environment is really important to us."

'Pain in my heart'

Meanwhile, Minnesotans are sending medical supplies to Liberia.

Fridley-based Global Health Ministries has sent two airfreight shipments to Liberia, including gloves, gowns, masks, face shields, hand sanitizers, for the past two months, and is closely working with Liberia's Ministry of Health, according to Scott Lien, the organization's director of operations.

Konjan, the Minneapolis man who lost the 17 family members, said his sister died Wednesday. The day before, three of his relatives succumbed to the virus.

Konjan, a Muslim, and Kwennah, a Christian, pray every day for the survival of their remaining family members.

"I try to be strong. My husband, family and friends have been supporting me," Kwennah said. "My church has been supporting me."

Family photos
Cynthia Kwennah flips through a album of family photographs at her Brooklyn Center, Minn. home Thursday, Sept. 4, 2014. Kwennah said eight family members have been killed the Ebola virus in Liberia.
Jeffrey Thompson/MPR News

After the outbreak ends, she plans to return to Liberia and start a foundation that helps young children who have lost their parents to the disease.

Konjan's brother told him on Wednesday that more family members with the Ebola virus are in treatment centers. The rest of his family members who have not contracted the virus left their village near the Sierra Leone border and went to the farms, away from the villages and cities.

"I am feeling some kind of pain in my heart because this kind of situation have not happened to me," he said. "I am feeling terrible. I don't even know what to do. I am so confused."

Konjan has sought comfort from a local Liberian imam, who encouraged him to stay strong.

After his brother finished listing all the names of the people who passed away, they had little time to talk. The international calls operator told Konjan that his credit was running low.

"Thank you very much for this," Konjan told his brother before the phone disconnected. "May God bless you."