Philadelphia is home to thousands of Liberians and other West African immigrants. That means the ebola outbreak abroad is really hitting home for a lot of local families right now.
“I mean I’ve had sleepless nights thinking about my family back home,” said Vaa Brewer. “A lady at my job, she lost four members of her family. Every day I’m praying and asking them to stay safe.”
Larry Saba has felt that same anxiety, along with the additional financial weight of supporting siblings and children who can no longer work due to the crisis.
“It’s scary, I mean I think about it every day, all the time,” said Saba.
According to Kpangbala Sengbe, Saba and Vaa’s experiences are reflective of many. As a Liberian born psychotherapist, Sengbe says the traumatic stress people are experiencing abroad extends to the West African community in Philadelphia.
“Because every time you get up in the morning, somebody is being informed that their relative or friends have died of the ebola crisis. Every time you look on social media, whether Instagram, Facebook, Twitter,” said Sengbe. “So there is major trauma taking place in Liberia and in the United States.”
Senge has been working at crisis centers in Monrovia, offering grief counseling and other support services at a crisis center. He’s held health leadership positions in the government, such as Assistant Minister for Planning, Research and Development at the Ministry of Health & Social Welfare from 2009-2010. He also works privately in the U.S.
He returned to Philadelphia in mid-August, joining his brother Anthony Sengbe, a senior pastor at Victory Harvest Fellowhip International, to organize ebola fundraisers. Kpangbala Sengbe is also planning to offer group counseling at the church.
He’s encouraging people to check in with loved ones in West Africa a lot, even just to talk, but also to pass along accurate public health advice, such as seeking medical attention when ill.
A trauma compounded by past trauma
Sengbe says as it is, ebola comes at a time when Liberians are still dealing with the aftermath of a civil war that ended in 2003 and killed about a quarter million people.
“So people are still traumatized from that war. Liberians are trying to recover,” said Sengbe. “Then this situation comes in, so there is a major post traumatic stress experience that is coming in.”
He says grief and loss therapy is a major need right now, especially in Liberia, and he’s viewed part of his role as helping people take the time to mourn.
“It’s not wrong for people to grieve. People have to grieve,” he said. “But you have to grieve in a reasonable period of time.”
Sengbe says if grief lingers too long, it becomes its own illness. He has also been talking with people in Philadelphia about the importance of focusing on those who are still alive.
“Sometimes if a relative passes up, a relative leaves children and other family members of theirs, and those responsibilities will most times fall on the American resident relatives,” said Sengbe. “So we try to build their hopes here, that whatever they do, they are to be strong for themselves here and for their relatives who are left behind in Liberia.”
Sengbe says in addition to grief and trauma, there’s also the anxiety that’s tied to this epidemic.
As an example, when he arrived to Philadelphia after his most recent visit to Liberia, he took a lot of extra precautions, even though he didn’t think he was ever exposed to the ebola virus. That included refraining from close contact with loved ones at first.
“It’s painful, that you see your loved ones and you can’t touch your kids, especially being gone for five months,” he said, recalling intentionally missing his daughter’s return to college. After a week or so when family did start to see him, he describes giving “air hugs” instead of actually physically embracing.
He says these kinds of precautions are changing an essential part of how people in his community interact with each other, through touch.
“Those are the ways to express love,” he said. “Right now it’s a challenge.”
Sengbe says robbing people of that physical connection is even more pronounced for those with a loved one who has ebola. He says it’s one of the cruelest elements of virus.
“People are not able to express the last thing that’s in them, especially if their relative is dying. That last gratitude of love by touching,” he said.
Finding strength in prayer
Sengbe’s brother Anthony adds that another way people are finding strength in Philadelphia is through gathering at church. He says it’s a safe space for people to meet and share experiences.
Once a month, Victory Harvest Fellowship hosts a special service for immigrants and refugees. During their most recent gathering, the church boomed with live music and singing, as people chanted ‘You are able, Lord.’
“Even today, we’re just praying for the ebola crisis,” said Sengbe. “There are people in the congregation whose families are infected, and we’re encouraging, counseling and praying along with them.”
Some share personal testimonies during the service.
Kpangbala Sengbe says for now, he’s focusing on efforts here in Philadelphia, and in this church, but he plans to return to Liberia soon.