Ebola fears, 'jokes' sting Minnesota children with W. African roots

Liberia's economy was the assignment and Tarlee, a student at a suburban Minneapolis high school, had worked hard on her class presentation. To spice it up, she even brought in a traditional Liberian meal to share.

Then she saw the fear.

One classmate warily eyed the meat —​ chicken, along with vegetables and rice. "He picked out the chicken. He was like, 'Oh, I'm afraid to eat this because I don't know what type of meat it is. It could be monkey meat. And I don't want to get Ebola or something like that,'" she recalled.

Tarlee, 17, heard the comment and tried to ease any fears by explaining the ingredients. But then she mentioned she'd been to Liberia.

"When I looked up, they were, like, shocked. I had to say I went there three years ago, and you could see everyone calm down," she said. "Their facial expression relaxed a little."

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While Ebola has receded from U.S. news headlines, with no new cases having been identified domestically for more than two weeks, it's still on the minds of many, including school kids. Some students of West African descent are struggling with their classmates' fears and unfunny jokes about the virus.

Tarlee and her friends have felt those barbs and wanted to tell their stories. MPR News agreed not to use the children's full names to protect their privacy.

Eleven-year old Karlor lives in the same suburb and is also Liberian. She hears a lot of wisecracking about Ebola at her school lately, too. If someone sneezes or coughs — "they'll say, 'Ha, ha, ha. I have Ebola.'"

Karlor thinks the kids aren't trying to be mean. But she worries she'll end up being the butt of some of their jokes.

"It's kind of really hard for me," Karlor said. "I'm afraid someone will come up to me and say I have Ebola because I'm one of the only black people in the sixth grade."

The girls interviewed for this story said they feel in moments threatened by their classmates' comments about Ebola — and in other moments deeply offended.

Karlor's 15-year-old sister, Leanne, is insulted that students — and even one of her teachers — could make light of Ebola given all the suffering it's caused. Some of Leanne's family members are under quarantine in Liberia. So the toll is very real to her. And it is not funny.

"It's like people can joke about Ebola freely but if someone were to joke about, let's say, cancer or 9/11, then we'd have so many bad responses, and so many people would get offended," Leanne said. "It's not fair to the people who are actually suffering from the disease that students and teachers joke about it."

The aunt of one of the girls, Karen Koukou-Twaglee, winces when she hears their stories. Another young relative, she said, is hiding his Liberian roots at school because of the charged atmosphere and fear of being teased.

She said she's concerned that Ebola will create a long-lasting stigma for African kids. She wants schools to do more than just send home flyers detailing facts about the virus.

"You can send home pamphlets and things with the nurses and parents. Who reads half of that stuff? You know, just be intentional," she said. "Go into the school district and sit parents and students down and do a forum and talk about these things. What are their fears? How can we try to minimize those fears?"

In some cases, even West Africans kids would benefit from more information.

Tarlee said her cousin — another Liberian-American teenager — recently thought he had Ebola, even though he had no exposure to the virus. She said she tried to persuade him it was impossible that his sore throat and dizziness were signs of the disease.

"He goes, 'Oh, but you never know,'" she said. "And I'm like, 'I think I do know!'"

Tarlee said her cousin went to the doctor anyway to get checked out. The diagnosis? A common cold.