Liberia’s Ebola Orphans

With 4,000 deaths in West Africa, the number of forsaken children is exploding. With no family, little community support, and no outlet for education, they face a bleak future.

10.14.14 3:05 AM ET

Ebola has killed more than 4,000 people in West Africa—and orphaned thousands more.

In Liberia, where an average household has three kids, this problem is particularly pronounced. According to international nonprofit Save the Children, the country has registered more than 2,000 new orphans since the epidemic began. Unable to make it to a hospital, or too afraid, parents are dying at home alongside kids who are powerless to save them. If the children survive, they are left facing communities too concerned to take them in, scared they will spread the virus.

MONROVIA, LIBERIA - AUGUST 19:  People walk past a very sick Saah Exco, 10, in a back alley of the West Point slum on August 19, 2014 in Monrovia, Liberia. The boy was one of the patients that was pulled out of a holding center for suspected Ebola patients when the facility was overrun by a mob on Saturday. A local clinic Tuesday refused to treat the boy, according to residents, because of the danger of infection. The virus has killed more than 1,000 people in four African nations, more in Liberia  than any other country.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

John Moore/Getty

People walk past a very sick Saah Exco, 10, in a back alley of the West Point slum on August 19, 2014 in Monrovia, Liberia.

This problem, one of many plaguing the region due to Ebola, gets exponentially worse with every new victim. Children are losing parents to Ebola at a rate equal to that at which people in that region are dying.

Carolyn Miles, president and CEO of Save the Children, had just returned from a trip to Liberia when we spoke via telephone. In her 16 years at a charity dedicated solely to helping children in need, she said she’s never seen anything close to the widespread suffering Ebola is inflicting on children. “It’s unprecedented. We’ve never seen an epidemic like this.” The impact on youth, she continues, is manifesting in three ways: kids contracting the disease, being orphaned by it, or losing their already limited options for education.  

Of the more than 8,000 people infected with Ebola in West Africa, an estimated 20 percent of them are under the age of 18. Without solid health or proper nutrition, the chances of recovery in this demographic are even lower than for the epidemic at large. “Three out of four of children infected with Ebola in West Africa are dying—that’s a 75 percent mortality rate,” says Miles. “These kids are already malnourished, they’re not in the best of health. They’re just not able to survive this.”

Those that do survive, or are lucky enough to have escaped infection, meet a shadowy future. According to data from UNICEF, upwards of 3,700 children have lost one or both parents to Ebola in Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia thus far. Miles, who met with four different groups of orphans in Liberia on her visit, suspects the number is much higher. "I think there are thousands we don’t even know about," she says.

The kids Miles met had either been released from the hospital after surviving Ebola, or had made it through the 21-day incubation period. Nearly all of them were newly homeless.

The first group she encountered was three sisters, aged 18, 7, 6, and their 3-year-old brother. With a father lost to the country’s bitter civil war, the girls’ mother had been left to care for them alone. When the mother came down with Ebola in the house, their calls for ambulances were not returned until four days later. By then, she was nearly dead. After passing that evening, her body reportedly remained in the house for three days before burial teams removed it. When they did, the kids were left helpless. “They took the body away, boarded the house, and burned everything, all of their possessions,” says Miles.

Ostracized by the community for fear of contamination, the girls and their brother had been given a small section of an outdoor porch to survive on. In the absence of mattresses or beds, they sleep under trees. Without a source of income or supply of food, they have begun selling green leaves that are used for multiple purposes in Liberia for food. “The community was still very much not willing to engage with them at all,” Miles says of the story. “They were certainly shunned.”

Later Miles met with a 19-year-old brother and his 7-year-old sister who had been living underneath a house since both their parents perished from Ebola. “They had virtually nothing,” says Miles. “Basically people were throwing them food on occasion, but they really have very, very little support.”

Working with the Liberian government’s department of social welfare, Save the Children is attempting to connect these orphans with relatives or other family members—and to find people willing to take care of them in the interim. Those lucky enough to have an older sibling who can give information about the whereabouts of non-immediate family have a shot at this. Young kids, who have trouble remembering even their own names, do not. “Little kids just don’t know the answer to all of those questions,” says Miles. “Every time you ask, the story is slightly different.”

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One such child, a 10-year-old named Moses, had contracted Ebola at the same time as both his parents. Neither survived. Lying in the hospital recovery room at JFK in Monrovia, he was unable to give any details about where, exactly, they could find any other family members. A nearby family, also survivors of Ebola, has temporarily taken him in. It’s not a story that’s often repeated.

On top of threatening their own physical safety and that of their parents, the Ebola epidemic is beginning to steal West African children’s hope for a better life. According to Save the Children, more than 1 million school-going children living in the Ebola-affected areas of Liberia are currently out of school, which have no immediate prospects of reopening. “We may not think of that as a big priority,” says Miles, “but that’s going to become very important.”

As the fate of education in this region remains unclear, the humanitarian organizations are focusing on providing immediate relief. Save the Children has begun putting together “survival kits” for the orphans consiting of food, water, clothes, and hygiene products. The organization is also in the process of building several health-care facilities for children there, one of which is near completion.

UNICEF has begun a robust effort to support these children as well that includes training hundreds of mental-health and social workers to help these victims cope, recruiting survivors of Ebola to care for the children, and providing more than 60,000 affected kids and families with “physiological support.” To carry out this mission, the organization has asked the U.S. for more than $200 million. Thus far, it has received just 25 percent. Manuel Fontaine, UNICEF regional director for West and Central Africa, captured the complexity of the problem: “Ebola is turning a basic human reaction like comforting a sick child into a potential death sentence.”

As the epidemic rages on, the children will continue to bear a huge brunt of the blow. While Miles says the kids she met were “incredibly brave,” both their psychological and physical pain was evident. “They’re traumatized… you could see it in their eyes,” says Miles.

While America’s attention is fixated on the pair of confirmed Ebola cases in Dallas—and the dozens of Ebola scares across the country—the real tragedy continues to be in Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea. The epidemic has already stolen many things from these countries, and as it continues to worsen, any semblance of stability that once remained for those growing up in that region will be one of them.