West Africa's expat community dwindles amid Ebola

AP News
Posted: Nov 11, 2014 1:17 PM
West Africa's expat community dwindles amid Ebola

Though he lives in Sierra Leone, American Michael Ropiecki tries not to waste a lot of energy worrying about his health. But last month he came down with a fever, was throwing up and had diarrhea — all symptoms of Ebola.

"It turned out to be food poisoning, but I was very nervous that day because I had three of the major symptoms of Ebola, and yeah, it was scary. Very scary," said the 35-year-old Tennesseean.

Ropiecki is one of a dwindling handful of Americans and other Westerners who have stayed in the Ebola-stricken countries of Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea since the outbreak. The expatriates have seen friends flee and new aid workers arrive. Attendance at one international school has dropped. Another one closed altogether.

Those who have stayed know that the countries' medical infrastructures have been devastated. Airline options have dwindled. Embassy families have left, and many missionary groups and multinational corporations evacuated staffers.

Many of the expats in the countries are new arrivals trying to aid the Ebola response, businessmen trying to drum up business from that response, or those just trying to help locals make it through the day.

Sierra Leone's capital, Freetown, sits between mountains and white-sand beach, a location that lends itself to ocean-side parties and lobster dinners. But the grocery stores and higher-end restaurants that used to cater to foreign residents are less crowded these days, with many international families having left. Ropiecki estimates that 60 percent of expats have left Sierra Leone.

Ropiecki is the director of The Raining Season orphanage, which has about 100 orphans, ranging from infants to 15-year-olds. Though his wife and three oldest daughters left in May, he needed to stay because the couple can't yet ensure their two youngest adopted daughters can get out. So Ropiecki has seen firsthand the lethal effects of Ebola.

An orphan girl he was trying to help who lived in a hard-hit village contracted what was likely malaria or typhoid, but no medical staff would treat her, worried that she had Ebola. She died.

"I shed too many tears over Zainab. Just thinking about her makes me choke up. I feel like I should have been able to save her," Ropiecki said. "I am angry of course but I am doing something constructive about it. I have a plan to help others like her get care quickly."

The American International School of Freetown did not open this semester because of the Ebola outbreak. The school fired all of its teachers, who had to find work elsewhere.

Jim Gerhard, the school's former director, now finds himself in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Gerhard's Air France flight out of Sierra Leone was canceled and he had to drive to Guinea, crossing 15 checkpoints where soldiers demanded bribes.This was the second time he and his wife had to abandon an international school. In 2003 the couple were in Kuwait during the invasion of neighboring Iraq and left.

On Friday nights much of the expat community gathers at the newly built Radisson Blu Hotel, where conversations — especially among the newly arrived health workers — tends to center around Ebola. The scary but controllable health threat has upended life, including the city's running club.

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"That has had to stop because it was a public gathering," Ropiecki said. "There were some races that were planned, a half marathon and marathon, and they couldn't have that because it would have been a huge group of people close together."

Ropiecki notes that most Ebola cases can be traced back to funerals or interaction with sick patients. So while his family worries, he feels fairly comfortable, except for the food poisoning he blamed on bad fish.

"Some very basic cautions, avoiding bodily contact, avoiding funerals. If you can follow those rules you're pretty safe even in the middle of this crisis," he said.

In Conakry, the capital of Guinea, the streets are jammed by traffic and vendors selling cheap electronics and hubcaps.

The oceanside American International School of Conakry has remained open through coups and election violence, and it remains open through the Ebola scare, though with fewer students.

Students and teachers pass through a temperature screening point when they enter the campus and wash their hands several times a day. Two years ago, the school had about 75 students. Today enrollment is in the low 30s, and anti-Ebola practices like hand washing have led to a drop in other illnesses, said Tim Casey, the school's director.

"The big thing that has done for us is we don't have kids coming down with colds," said Casey, "so our attendance has improved percentage wise."