West African immigrants say ‘fearbola’ has led to discrimination

     Chioma Azi is the staff attorney at the African Cultural Alliance of North America in Southwest Philadelphia. (Maiken Scott/WHYY)

    Chioma Azi is the staff attorney at the African Cultural Alliance of North America in Southwest Philadelphia. (Maiken Scott/WHYY)

    It’s been dubbed “fearbola,” the fear of the virus that seems to be spreading faster than Ebola itself. West African immigrants in the region are reporting cases of discrimination fueled by this fear, and some are taking legal action.

    Southwest Philadelphia is home to a large West African immigrant community, with the African Cultural Alliance of North America, ACANA, on Chester Avenue as a hub of connection.

    Staff attorney Chioma Azi has been busy answering calls and questions about Ebola discrimination, for example from a woman about to go on a trip to Europe.

    “She is of Sierra Leonean descent, but is a U.S. citizen. And she asked me, ‘I’m traveling to England, will I be quarantined when I come back?’ I said ‘absolutely not!'”

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    Azi has also experienced discrimination closer to home recently, when her grandmother’s appointment at her primary care physician was cancelled.

    The appointment was scheduled about a month after her grandmother had returned from a trip to Uganda in East Africa.

    “Originally they made the appointment, but when they learned she had just arrived they cancelled it, and said they just don’t want to run the risk,” said Azi. Uganda is nearly 2,000 miles away from the countries where Ebola is active.

    Azi said she tried,  in vain, to calm the doctor’s fears.  She’s filed a complaint about the incident with the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

    From name-calling in the school yard to employees being asked to stay home from work, Voffee Jabateh has heard it all in recent months. Jabateh, who heads the African Cultural Alliance of North America, wants to reassure people that West Africans are doing everything they can to halt the spread of the disease.

    “The message should be clear, we are Americans, and we ourselves don’t want Ebola to impact our own family, or the general population,” he said.

    Philadelphia’s health department has been inundated with calls about Ebola discrimination, but directs those questions city’s Commission on Human Relations.

    “Hysteria has never been an effective tool when dealing with health concerns,” said commission director Rue Landau. “It’s very important that people get the facts about the disease itself, and the facts about discrimination.”

    Landau said her office will investigate all discrimination claims.

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