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Minnesota's Liberian Immigrants Fear Stigma From Ebola


We're going to hear now about the impact of Ebola on Liberian-Americans. One of the biggest Liberian communities in the U.S. is in Minneapolis. Many community members have lost relatives to the disease. And their leaders are urging them not to travel home for funerals. Matt Sepic of Minnesota Public Radio has our report.

MATT SEPIC, BYLINE: When Fomba Konjan got a call from his brother in Monrovia - the Liberian capital - the news was grim. Seventeen members of their extended family, including many nieces and nephews, had died of Ebola. That was a month ago. Now, it's much worse.

FOMBA KONJAN: Actually, my father's side, I lose 24, which is two dozen. And my mother's side - I lose eight.

SEPIC: That includes his sister. He says it's especially hard to grieve from 5,500 miles away.

KONJAN: We just stay here and pray to God: save our country and our continent and so on.

SEPIC: The West African community here includes about 12,000 people born in Liberia and nearly all know someone in the old country who's been sick and/or killed by Ebola since the outbreak began. At this suburban community center, Liberian-Americans are celebrating Eid ul-Adha, a Muslim holiday. About a quarter of Liberians in Minnesota are Muslim. Kids chase each other up and down the halls as about 100 adults gather in a banquet room.

Mohammed Dukuly - an imam - says he's been beseeching his flock to fight the urge to travel home, even, he says, if it means forgoing the traditional burial rite of washing the deceased person's body.

MOHAMMED DUKULY: The person who is already dead is dead. Our responsibility as Muslims, our obligation is to protect the living.

SEPIC: He says protecting the living also means protecting the immigrant community from the stigma Ebola carries. He's referring to Dallas, Texas, where Liberian national Thomas Duncan died after contracting the virus in Liberia and then traveling back to the U.S. Some African immigrants in Dallas say they've been told not to come to work. Here, Dukuly says his biggest worry is that an infected person will show up in Minneapolis.

DUKULY: The stigmatization that brings to our community. Someone from West Africa came into that place and has caused problem for people in Texas.

SEPIC: Abdullah Kiatamba is helping Dukuly get out the message. Kiatamba heads a group called the Minnesota African Task Force Against Ebola. It was formed to raise money and awareness. He also tells people not to travel home.

ABDULLAH KIATAMBA: It makes sense to support your family. But if you go to Africa now, some of your family will have Ebola, and they will not tell you they have Ebola. And when you come back, and you don't feel good, when they ask, you say, oh no, I don't think I got Ebola. I think I got malaria. And when they find out, you'll be on CNN.

SEPIC: These warnings appear to be working. Travel agent Jannie Seibure says Liberians who've already bought tickets to go back home for Christmas - and most Liberians are Christian - are now canceling their travel plans.

JANNIE SEIBURE: In recent times, that's all we see - a lot of refunds from passengers that had already made plans to travel to Monrovia, Sierra Leone and Guinea.

SEPIC: Back at the community center celebrating the holiday, Hakeen Sylla says most people have enough common sense not to travel.

HAKEEN SYLLA: People understand that you can't just go. People are dying just for being there and helping other people.

SEPIC: Sylla is one of the few Liberian-Americans here whose relatives have escaped Ebola so far. Even still, his closest contact with them for the foreseeable future will be by phone. For NPR News, I'm Matt Sepic in Minneapolis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Matt Sepic