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Just in Time?

July 31, 2014

At JFK with the Boys

Sunday morning I boiled potatoes, finished the laundry, and piled in the jeep with two of my students. They’d won scholarships to study at Arizona State and I promised to carry them halfway. A heavy July rain beat the car the entire way to the airport but the driver blasted gospel music and morale was high.

Everything seemed normal.

We passed the Firestone plantation and pulled up to the airport around 1:30pm only to find a long line of cars stopped on the road. The gates were locked and a team of young men in rain suits and umbrellas seemed to be doing nothing but shouting, shaking their heads and sending people away.

This wasn’t normal.

We finally inched up to the gate and were told, yes, airplanes were flying but only ticket holders and drivers could enter. “I have nine people and a baby in this car,” the driver told the man, shaking his head, “What am I supposed to do? Put them down in the rain?” The man just shrugged, “Ebola.”

We backed around and found an entertainment center across the road. Saye’s uncle had come from Monrovia to see him off and we sat together for a few minutes drinking warm soft drinks, but unable to say much over the roar of the rain. Back at the gate we were again interrogated but this time they opened the fence a crack and, with a suspicious look, let us in. We pulled up to the Delta terminal and untied the luggage from the roof. It was soaked. (Good thing I stayed up late trying to wash and dry all their clothes.)

I helped them get their documents ready and tried to put on my most confident but friendly face as we approached security. I’d been nervous about Ebola embarrassing this trip for months and it was one reason I’d broken the bank to buy a plane ticket just four days earlier. My first two sons had trouble getting to Costa Rica—surely it would be even more difficult for the ones trying to get into America.

The security glared at the boys’ documents for fifteen minutes, pacing and showing them to other people. “First trip to America?” he finally asked without looking at us. I smiled and replied cheerfully but he just grunted, took a long look at my busted Peace Corps tag and lapa dress and threw the passports back across the counter before granting us passage.

I expected someone somewhere to ask us about Ebola or to somehow check us for symptoms but once we were in it was business as usual. Ok, I thought, so far so good… but this is Liberia. When we land at JFK in New York someone is going to have questions.

But at 5:30am we cleared immigration in the family lane and collected our still soaked bags.

Everything was going so well! Too well. I should have known the pot forgotten on the back burner was about to start boiling.

Yesterday, while cooking Liberian pumpkin soup at a friend’s house in Delaware I saw a news alert. Peace Corps is evacuating all Volunteers in Liberia. My stomach fell through the floor and I had to sit down. The boys and I were originally supposed to leave on Tuesday but the trip was unexpectedly moved up and thank god for that. We literally missed trouble by a few hours. It’s hard to tell exactly what’s going on, but borders are being closed (is that possible in Liberia?) and some airlines are cancelling flights.

The two or three days before I left Cuttington my son Siaffa had been scared. He’d attended a campus wide Ebola meeting and had been wearing rubber gloves and refusing to shake hands (even with me) ever since. “Sis RB people say that when they think you have Ebola the doctors come and give you an injection that kills you. I don’t know. How true is it?”

Probably harboring similar concerns, a man in Sanniquellie escaped from the hospital after being isolated as a potential Ebola patient. A doctor at the Phebe Hospital adjacent Cuttington campus died of Ebola and so did three nurses, rumored to be Cuttington students doing their practical. Hand washing stations had shown up all around campus but the message continued to be that we were safe. Ebola is extremely deadly when caught but relatively easy to avoid because it is transmitted primarily through close contact with body fluids like feces and vomit.

We are a university, not a funeral home or hospital so the general feeling was that if we were careful we were safe. My coworkers, primarily Nigerians, were initially very concerned about the Ebola outbreak but my stance has always been “as long as the Peace Corps Volunteers are here I’m not worried.” I even wrote that to Siaffa in an email just hours before the evacuation was announced. “I know you’re scared but as long as Brother Alex is there with you things are going to be all right.”

Thank god I clicked “save draft” and not “send.”

I’ve received a number of emails from close friends and family saying how grateful they are that I left when I did, but I have to admit I’m conflicted. Yes, I’m grateful to be safe and, yes, I thank god the boys made it to ASU but I still have half my family in Liberia. How do I sit down here and not feel like shit? They have nowhere to evacuate to and, increasingly, nowhere to get medical care. When I went to Gbarnga last Friday the hospital, usually overflowing with patients and market women was abandoned and locked. Doctors and nurses are afraid to treat any patients and as a result people are dying needlessly of preventable things.

I don’t know what’s going on with my office and my project yet, but I have faith I’ll be back and so will Peace Corps. It might not be as soon as I thought, but we’ve worked too hard to turn back now. Besides, I’m just a private citizen now so as long as I can get a flight, or a bus, or a canoe I’ll find a way back.

Be strong, Liberia.  If there’s any justice in the world this too shall pass.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Robert Dahl permalink
    July 31, 2014 10:57 pm

    REBEKAH, YOU WRITE SO ANYONE CAN UNDERSTAND WHAT’S IN YOUR HEART..I AM THANKFUL YOU, AND SONS, ARE HERE.KEEPING IN TOUCH, GRANDMA IN MN SENDS HER LOVE.

  2. Festus Guah permalink
    August 4, 2014 5:32 am

    Thank so much Miss RB, for you tireless effort of supporting Liberia. “you have done it agian” and we love you for it” no peace scorps teacher have had the passion you have for us. thanks so much once again. may God reward you and your generation!!!!!!!!: amen!

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