Ebola fight is personal for Notre Dame

Mandela Washington Fellow Yassah Lavelah, second from right, at Notre Dame

Mandela Washington Fellow Yassah Lavelah, second from right, at Notre Dame

 By Yassah Lavelah 

When I arrived at Notre Dame University from Liberia in June, no one ever thought I would have been faced with an impossible situation in the matter of weeks as a result of the Ebola crisis. As one of the prestigious Mandela Washington Fellows studying at Notre Dame, I was left amazed by the love and support everyone demonstrated. In fact, it felt like one big family by the end of the first week. But it all took a sudden turn for the worst when the Ebola virus sped out of control in my home country Liberia. Even though I was in Liberia working as a nurse at the onset of the crisis, I remained hopeful that it would all just go away. I was wrong! By the time I was wrapping up my study at Notre Dame, the phone calls and news about the escalating Ebola crisis from my family and friends in Liberia became so unbearable that two days felt like a year of depression. Confused and not knowing where to turn, my Notre Dame family engaged me immediately in an effort to understand what was happening in Liberia as an act of reassurance that they were ready to stand beside me.

I declined an offer to stay in the United States temporarily and returned to Liberia in July at the peak of the crisis. As a local medical professional, I was fully aware that we were the only defense and symbol of hope standing between the complete destruction of entire communities already devastated by the Ebola virus. Upon my arrival, I was able to provide a complete assessment to my Notre Dame Family and other colleagues who were so eager to understand the evolving situation and how they could help. As a result, Notre Dame sprang into action immediately and within weeks raised enough money to load a 40ft container with medical supplies and equipment to bolster our efforts in the fight on the frontlines of the Ebola crisis.

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Community volunteers help offload supplies

The container was cleared through customs with the assistance of the Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach team on February 7 and supplies successfully delivered to the Ma V. Maternity clinic, which focuses on maternal and infant health. Between my work as a Nurse at the ELWA Hospital, which is home to one of the largest Ebola treatment facility in Liberia, and my community work through the Ma V. Maternity clinic, we are determined to defeat the Ebola virus while ensuring that mothers and infants are protected and cared for. Words could not describe the look on the faces of community members and staffs at the clinic as supplies were being offloaded. Everyone including my mother who founded the clinic with me about eight years ago looked on in total disbelief and joy that Notre Dame was willing to go through everything it took to get help here so quickly. For those of you who may not understand, the craft of empty promises is something we’ve gotten so used to in Liberia that it is almost impossible to trust anyone. Even worse, those of us from very poor families who do not have the resources to see our dreams through are left to live for everyday since we are not guaranteed the next day. Nevertheless my fears, Notre Dame left me with no choice but to trust them as we worked together with the Mission Outreach team to see this through. They did not only send us much needed supplies that will save the lives of hundreds of mothers and babies, they have helped restore our dignity and belief in humanity once more as a community that has been abused for so long. It may seem like we are a world apart, but we couldn’t have been closer as a result of the warmth and love that comes with this assistance. To my family at Notre Dame and everyone that worked to make this a reality especially the Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach folks, you refuse to feel sorry for us, instead, you are standing with us shoulder to shoulder as we take on a common enemy in the Ebola virus. For this, our community and country will forever be grateful for your belief in the dignity of humanity. I couldn’t have been more proud to be a part of this family, you welcomed me without any hesitation, you never give up on me even in the face of danger, and for this, and I will forever remain truthful to the spirit and value of this family.

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Yassah Lavelah (third from left) and her mother (far right) with clinic staff

To President Barack Obama who made all this possible through the brilliant Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) otherwise known as the Mandela Washington Fellowship, an ordinary young woman like me who could only dream of ever getting the opportunity of further education now serves as a beacon of hope for thousands of my peers who felt there was no place in this world for them. You may never read this article, but I hope you feel it in your heart, I will forever be indebted to you and the people of the United States along with the thousands of young women, mothers and children whose lives I have been empowered to save as a result of this opportunity. The world will bear witness to this testimony as we emerge from the Ebola crisis through the breath and heartbeat of the mothers and children we continue to care for. With renewed hope, we are winning the battle against Ebola, we couldn’t have done it without you, and we will let our children know tomorrow what you did and where you stood when it mattered most.

Yassah Lavelah has more than five years of experience as a Registered Nurse in Liberia. Her work focuses on social enterprise and sustainability in community healthcare with a specific emphasis on reducing infant and maternal mortality. Based on her nursing experience in four of Liberia’s major medical centers, Yassah believes that future of Liberia’s economic success and productivity lies in the reduction of infant and maternal mortality. She currently works as a nurse at ELWA Hospital and is the Ministry of Health Detached Field Supervisor to MSF focusing on the Ebola crisis. In addition to attending to patients, she conducts workshops and lectures on disease prevention and other safety measures. She is also a nurse at the Ma V. Maternity Clinic, which she established with her mother in 2005 in Paynesville, Liberia. Yassah holds weekly health assessments and workshops for youth in her role as a volunteer community health nurse with Youth Crime Watch-Liberia. She has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing from Cuttington University and is a 2014 Mandela Washington Fellow at the University of Notre Dame.

Good news for the Notre Dame family in Liberia

1510877_810564325678975_1807159605276889357_nMembers of the ND Unite to Fight Ebola team on campus were notified over the weekend that the shipping container they raised funds for last fall arrived at long last in Liberia. Yassah Lavaleh, a nurse working in Monrovia, spent six weeks at Notre Dame during the summer of 2014 as a Mandela Washington Fellow with the Young African Leaders Initiative , a U.S. Department of State program, where she joined 24 other Fellows from 17 different countries for a business and entrepreneurship intensive.

After Yassah returned home to her Ebola-ravaged country at the end of July, she kept in touch with her Notre Dame family. The emails and daily Facebook updates from her were heartbreaking. At the height of the crisis, members of the Eck Institute for Global Health, who had connected with Yassah while she was here, led a university-wide fundraising effort with Notre Dame’s Initiative for Global Development (NDIGD) and the Kellogg Institute’s Ford Family Program in Human Development Studies and Solidarity: ND Unite to Fight Ebola.

Yassah provided a list of medical supplies and protective gear to support the efforts at her Ma V. Maternity Clinic. Notre Dame partnered with Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach  to make her list a reality. Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach collected donations of medical supplies to fight Ebola and provide primary care to the patients. Students, faculty, and staff from Notre Dame, members of the South Bend community, and ND alumni clubs raised over $26,000 for transport of the supplies. Representatives from Notre Dame and Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach prepared the shipment and attended the ceremonial send-off on November 20, 2014. After several weeks, the container of supplies finally arrived in Monrovia on February 7.

“It may seem like we are a world apart, but we couldn’t have been closer as a result of the warmth and love that comes with this assistance,” Yassah said in an email. “To my family at Notre Dame and everyone that worked to make this a reality, especially the Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach folks, you refuse to feel sorry for us; instead, you are standing with us shoulder to shoulder as we take on a common enemy in the Ebola virus. For this, our community and country will forever be grateful for your belief in the dignity of humanity.“

Contact: Joya Helmuth NDIGD Outreach Associate at jhelmuth@nd.edu
or Sarah Craig, EIGH Communications Specialist at Craig.20@nd.edu.

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The ND Unite to Fight Ebola Team

 

ND helps load Liberia-bound container of supplies

10838128_728840543856990_5845236620757734276_oThanks to you, we were able to raise enough funds to send a container of supplies to Liberia! On November 20, two members of the Unite to Fight Ebola team from campus drove to Springfield, IL to participate with the Hospital Sisters Mission Outreach team as they loaded the container with our items. We were notified last week that the container has made it to Liberia and should arrive this week to its destination near Monrovia.

Our thanks to all those who contributed to this very important campaign. The fight is not over, but we know this will make a difference!

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Liberia: Fighting Ebola in the midst of a poor and weak health care delivery system

Timothy Al Paulus is a peacebuilding and gender based violence professional working in Liberia for the United Nations Development Program. He is presently the National Programme Coordinator for the Government of Liberia and United Nations Joint Programme on Sexual and Gender Based Violence. Previously as a Nike Foundation Fellow Timothy worked with the Liberian Ministry of Youth and Sports as a Youth Development Consultant where he designed and supervised programs to assist with the rehabilitation and reintegration of war affected youth. Timothy holds a Master of Arts Degree from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame. He is a volunteer lecturer at the Kofi Annan Institute for Conflict Transformation at the University of Liberia. He is also a contributing writer for the New Democrat Newspaper in Monrovia.

Background

Liberia is currently affected by the deadly Ebola Virus and the disease has spread to many parts of the counties. Liberia is among three countries including Guinea and Sierra Leone experiencing this unprecedented outbreak of the virus, the largest ever since this virus was first discovered. It now poses serious risks to the health, safety, security and welfare of the entire country. And beyond the public health risk, the disease is now undermining the economic stability of Liberia to the tone of millions of dollars in lost revenue, productivity and economic activity.

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Ebola Response Team;  Photo by ALJAZEERA

Before the outbreak of the Ebola Virus Disease, the country was slowly recovering from over a decade of bloody civil war from 1989 until 2003. The civil war was characterized by deeply rooted ethnic rivalry, brutal murder of a large number of the Liberian population, the displacement of close to a million inhabitants, and devastated the entire country. For 133 years Liberia was ruled by freed slaves from the United States of America under a one party system.  As a result the inequalities built into Liberia’s governing structure, a century-old politico-economic system successfully marginalized the Liberian natives. Also issues of power and greed and other social woes contributed to the oppression and marginalization of the indigenous Liberians.

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Sophia Doe sits with her grandchildren and weeps due to the delay of the response team

This protracted periods of systemic weaknesses, discrimination, and inequality led to a bloody coup on April 12, 1980 that ended the “Americo Liberian”[1] domination of state power. However, after the coup, ethnic rivalry became a centerpiece for conflict, fueling 14 years of brutal civil war which destroyed the already inadequate infrastructure of the country.[2] Through assistance from the international community including the Government of the United States, the road to recovery has been promising until the outbreak and wide spread of this deadly disease called Ebola. After several years of brutal civil war and political unrest, Liberia was a nation reborn and a success story for international intervention and peace keeping. Our country was being transformed from a failed state to a stable democracy. We were rebuilding our infrastructure including our education and health systems and was beginning to enjoy a promising growth record on the continent. Now the deadly disease Ebola seem to threaten all of the progress made. Everything in Liberia has virtually come to a complete stand still due to the fear and panic associated with this deadly killer called Ebola.

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Rebuilding hope for Ebola survivors

Doris Maholo-Saydee currently works as Director for the Peacebuilding Fund Project Management Unit at the Ministry of Gender and Development in Liberia. She is also the founder and Executive Director for Alliance for Women Advancement, a local nongovernmental organization. Doris holds a master’s degree in international peace studies from the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies, University of Notre Dame, Indiana USA. 

“When I made the decision to immediately return to Liberia after graduation, I was aware of the Ebola outbreak but I least expected it to get serious than it was at the time. I was always assured by family members that it was nothing serious and there was no reason to panic. When classmates asked about my safety upon my return, I would respond that it was not as serious as it was being presented by the media. My responses at the time were typical of many Liberians who were yet to know and see deadly nature of the virus.  Not until the outbreak reached the capital city, just a month after my arrival that I began to realize that my country was at war with an invisible enemy.

“By August, Ebola had become a national challenge as the government declared a State of emergency and imposed a curfew. Monrovia, the capital became tense as people rushed to buy and stock up food like the days of the civil conflict. In support of the government, all UN funded project (two of which I coordinate) activities in the field were subsequently suspended and staffs were encouraged to join the fight to eradicate Ebola.

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Ebola: the reality check

1610790_729837987084943_4421101018398953746_n Yassah conducting door-to-door education in her community

Yassah Lavelah currently works as a nurse at ELWA Hospital and the Ministry of Health Detached Field Supervisor to MSF focusing on the Ebola crisis. In addition to attending to patients, she conducts workshops and lectures on disease prevention and other safety measures. She is also a nurse at the Ma V. Maternity Clinic, which she established with her mother in 2005 in Monrovia, Liberia. Yassah holds weekly health assessments and workshops for youth in her role as a volunteer community health nurse with Youth Crime Watch-Liberia. She has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Nursing from Cuttington University and is a Mandela Washington Fellow at the University of Notre Dame.

“When giving up is not an option and running away is unrealistic, staying in the United States would have been the equivalent of torture for me as the ebola outbreak spiraled out of control in Liberia. As a Mandela Washington Fellow studying at the University of Notre Dame this summer, I began to worry when my mom called from Liberia and said she was feeling ill but afraid to go to the hospital. My first reaction was something along these lines, mom! You must go to the hospital right away, don’t overlook your health. She said “I can’t because they will conclude that I have ebola without properly ruling out other forms of illnesses.” My body went cold immediately because she was already isolating herself as a precaution. If my mother who is an experienced health worker could be this frightened and totally out of options, I could only imagine the devastation among ordinary Liberians. At this point, I had no choice but to decline an offer from the US State Department to extend my stay in the United States while they monitor the situation in Liberia. How could I have remained in Washington DC when my mother, brothers, sisters and the people that I love be sentenced to death by ebola with the permission of the world by virtue of the snail pace response. I made a decision to go back to Liberia on July 31 and help when the ebola crisis was heating up because Liberia is all I have. Like many other Liberians, I love the United States, but Liberia is my responsibility.

IMG_3390-2Yassah’s mother preparing to attend to patients at the clinic

“The ebola crisis started in spring this year mostly in the rural areas of Guinea first, and then crossed into Liberia by March. At that point, it was only the matter of time before it hit the major city centers. I was among the lucky few working on the front lines to receive training and education on ebola and how to contain it as early as May. This was possible because the ELWA hospital where I work was among the few that had a limited supply of personal protective equipment and procedures to deal with such a crisis. The support of Samaritan Purse from the United States and other Christian Missions were key. In fact the hospital was established by a missionary movement from the United States called Eternal Love Winning Africa (ELWA) decades before the war erupted in Liberia. As a result of my training, I was able to train staff at my clinic, which focuses on maternal and infant health as well as community members about the ebola virus and prevention methods. Unfortunately, we did not even have gloves, protective clothing, hand sanitizers or chlorine solutions to do anything in case someone got infected. In Liberia, items like hand sanitizers are usually for the wealthy if you are lucky enough to find it on the market.

“And so we waited, we were hopeful that somebody somewhere was going to come to our aid. We were hopeful that supplies were going to come, we were convinced that the world couldn’t sit by and watch us die and do nothing. Sadly, I am beginning to feel that way. This crisis was preventable, but no one seemed to care when we had the window of opportunity. The blood of our children, women, doctors and nurses was not enough to awaken the conscience of the world. Not until two white American doctors got infected in July, not until the world realized that ebola could show up on their shores.

“Do not get me wrong, I worked directly with Dr. Kent Bentley and Nancy Writebol at the ELWA hospital everyday when they were in Liberia. In fact, they facilitated my training indicated earlier. They are not just wonderful professionals; they are wonderful human beings who served the people of Liberia with their lives. But, when the world stays silent while thousand of black West Africans die, but goes crazy when two American doctors get infected, the silence becomes deafening and the inaction becomes murderous. Some people blame us for the spread of the virus as a result of cultural practices, etc. While some of that may be true, what do you do when your sick relative is turned away from the hospital? Do you walk away or stand by and watch them die? In fact, some people make the conscious decision to die while preserving the humanity of their dying relatives than to save themselves and live with their conscience for the rest of their lives. Before you jump to any criticism or conclusion, ask yourself a simple question, what would you do if it were your son, daughter, mother or father in the same situation? I think it’s time for a reality check and enough of the blame game.  The cultural challenge was always going to be an issue; it is a difficult thing to ask people to stop their traditions and way of life regardless of race or geography. At this point, we are going door-to-door and educating people in Liberia as local health workers who understand the importance of the culture. But we need to be empowered to do such outreach, our international colleagues arrive with all their gears and equipment while we often watch in dismay because we cannot even get gloves or masks in most cases, but we refuse to abandon our people. If it means we die, then so be it. Even if people listen to us and stop cultural practices, what do they do when no one can pick a dead body infected with ebola? What happens when an infected patient is turned away from the hospital? What happens when doctors turn a pregnant mother away due to overcrowded hospitals?

“It is not too late, we need help, and we continue to wait because we refuse to lose hope. Somebody somewhere has to listen. We will get through this and history will judge all of us.

“As I conclude, I want to give special thanks to my family at the University of Notre Dame for heeding our call and doing all they can to support local health workers in Liberia. I will go to work tomorrow with renewed hope that somebody somewhere is listening. I will look at another ebola patient tomorrow and try to smile because of the efforts of my family at the University of Notre Dame. It is time for a reality check, we will get through this, but we will need all the help we can get.”

Yassah Lavelah, of Monrovia, has more than five years of experience in the health sector. Her work focuses on social enterprise and sustainability in community healthcare with a specific emphasis on reducing infant mortality. Based on her nursing experience in four of Liberia’s major medical centers, Yassah believes that increasing the number of trained midwives in Liberia will lead to a reduction in infant mortality. Thus, she looks forward to creating a Midwives Association, which will allow midwives from around the country to petition the government and private contributors for support.

The support of everyone is helping us to survive

Abu Bakarr Nat Taylor-Kamara is my research assistant in Makeni. He is in Sierra Leone, one of the West African countries affected the most by the Ebola epidemic. I have been working with him since 2005 on all of my projects and he is, for all intents and purposes, family. We are in constant contact. He informed me this morning that there are 35 new cases confirmed in the district today. Though it is Eid, it is a sad, sad day, and no one is celebrating.    –Dr. Catherine Bolton, Asst. Professor of Anthropology and Peace Studies

“Makeni city in the Bombali district, Sierra Leone is an area that rarely appears in Western Media. It has been infected with the Ebola virus over the last months. This area in fact is one of the mostly infected as it stands by what has been defined as the most serious outbreak of the viral outbreak since it discovery in Central Africa in 1976.

“With the seeming unending suffering due to our senseless 11yrs civil war, we are now again being put into a test with the Ebola outbreak- distressing the less opportuned more than ever. There is a growing content of fear, but also the awareness to take the medical precautions such as staying in isolation that at times go against our unique tribal identity and associated practices. The suffering these days is the acuteness of quarantining people: staying at home to avoid the risk of contamination, thus containment.

“According to the WHO rep in the district as per today’s Task Force meeting intimated that over 40 households have been quarantined in Makeni with over 500 inhabitants with children and women in the majority. There are a heavy pour of problems teaming down squarely in these homes. A case study is present in an area called New London in Makeni where a family of 8 was at risk. Both parents died as confirmed cases. The children in question were immediately quarantined. The oldest is 8+ and the rest cannot even comprehend the first 10 letters of the 26 alphabet in their greatest memories. Nothing good can come of this, as the oldest is still only a small child. As the story continues to uncover more unwanted occurrences for this unfortunate family, it was suggested that they are relocated to a nearby unfinished structure to avoid the risk of contamination in the house. This relocation just added fuel to an already exploded situation as two of the kids died two days later-2yrs and 4yrs. The remaining four who just survived their 42 days of quarantine are in such a predicament that nothing seems ever work for them. Will they stay alone, without parents, in quarantine for another 21 days? Their futures are questionable- you can imagine their depression and agonies. This is one of the many distressing scenarios we are currently faced with.

“Those who have volunteered and are sacrificing their lives in high risk zones are becoming discouraged because of the psychological barriers created by their willingness to help—social maginalization in their communities, proposed salaries are not in all cases actualized, under-staffing, and logistical support from government is slow to come. You can imagine the anxiety in all of us, considering the propensity of the virus transmission. The vestiges of our civil war still continues to linger on, making it more difficult for us in isolation areas- our daily activities, such as trade, we feed from and are in stagnation. We have been significantly touched. We now rely on you to transcend our misfortunes, the most of all our lonesome voices that are in silent serfdom to Ebola. We are stressed for your loving as we bear the test of time once again.

“As you know, the situation here in Sierra Leone is bad and very difficult. However, this will not stop us but rather urges us to be firm and continue to develop actions that we shall use to build a ring of action around Ebola. Although it seems that all around us is fear, anxiety, inactivity, and at times disappointments that the authorities are so slow in helping the situation, I think they do not have all the requirements in this fight and speedily it is becoming deeper.

“Join the line and act fast if you care enough for the living and make Sierra Leone a better place for you and for me.”

Share your story.

There are many in the Notre Dame community affected by this crisis: students, alumni, faculty, and staff. We’d like to share your story.

Please send your story (1000 words or less) to ebola@nd.edu, along with a picture or two to share, and we’ll get it on the blog as soon as possible.

Thank you.

Notre Dame unites to fight Ebola

Students, staff, faculty, and alumni are uniting to provide assistance to our global family living in areas impacted by Ebola.

It’s simple—help is needed and there is something each of us can do. We stand in solidarity with those whose family and friends are threatened by this crisis.

Your contributions will go directly to assist in prevention and care in the hardest hit areas of West Africa. Donate here.