By Katherine Mueller, IFRC
Family and home. Two words which are generally connected to feeling safe and loved. A cocoon of sorts to turn to when life bombards you with challenges. But what happens when that very safe haven is the one casting you aside?
That was the reality for hundreds of young men and women who volunteered to be part of the fight against Ebola when no one else was willing. Time and time again, they were ostracized, even kicked out of their family home and communities. “Many people were stigmatizing us, doing many things, calling us names. But we are volunteers, that is our job,” says Kemoh Amara, member of a Sierra Leone Red Cross Society safe and dignified burial team in Kailahun district.
The 23-year-old was part of the first team to be trained on how to bury Ebola’s dead in a manner that would keep himself, his family, and his community, safe. The decision was not well received by his family.
“I was driven from my residence. I could not touch any one of my relatives. Until the sickness minimized in the country, my family would not accept me back home,” he says. “I was scared and attempted to see them, but they were afraid of me. In my own heart, they were still my family but they abandoned me because of the work that I was doing.”
It was a heart-wrenching decision for any mother to have to make. Kemoh’s mother made it out of love for her family. “It was very difficult to ask my son to go out from the home. But he was touching dead bodies, and you can never tell if he was the dangerous one,” explains Hawaedison Amara, Kemoh’s mother. “Maybe he would get Ebola and if he came back home, maybe he would contaminate the rest of the family.”
Kemoh’s story is not unique in that he was joined by other burial team members who were told not to come home until the outbreak was over, or whose money was not accepted at market. There were so many, the Red Cross rented houses in which the teams could live. The Red Cross also dispatched other teams of volunteers, beneficiary communicators and social mobilizers to visit communities and help them understand how Ebola is transmitted, and perhaps most importantly, that if their loved one is not showing symptoms, he or she is not contagious.
It was following one of these such visits that Kemoh’s mother had a change of heart.
“Because of the teachings by the Red Cross on how to stay safe from Ebola, I thought it was okay for my son to return home. I called him and said, ‘please come back home and let us all stay together. If you happen to get Ebola, okay, it is God’s will’. He came back.”
The family is living together again, and the stigma Kemoh faced is subsiding. People again call him by his name and not ‘Burial Man’. And if Ebola returns? “If Ebola ever comes back and my son wants to take part in the burial activities again, I will not stop him,” says Hawaedison. “I would just say go ahead because he has been trained on how to put on the protective equipment, and he knows how to handle someone with Ebola.”
The Red Cross has joined with UNDP to support 800 burial team volunteers in Sierra Leone as they reintegrate into their families and communities. The volunteers can choose from vocational training, business skills development, or education. Psychosocial support is also being provided to those feeling the effects of being stigmatized.